What is reflective parenting?
The Theory of Reflective Parenting was developed by Peter Fonagy and his colleagues at the Tavistock Clinic in London. The theory suggests that a parent with high reflective functioning has the ability to see their child as a separate, autonomous individual with “a mind of his own”. This teaches the parent and the child to communicate clearly, become better understood, and feel connected as well as independent.
Reflective parenting teaches parents to understand and respond to a child’s motivations instead of her actions, in the belief that reflection is more productive for healthy family relationships than addressing specific actions.
Here is a common parenting scenario:
Adam is 8 years old. He is about to go to sleep one night but first must prepare his school bag for school the next morning. His routine is interrupted by a panic stricken thought. He runs downstairs and says to his mother,
“Mom…I need some Pokemon cards for tomorrow.”
Mom replies “uhhhhhh, it’s 8:00 and time for bed. We can go buy Pokemon cards tomorrow.”
“Mom”, Adam edges toward frustration, “I need the cards for tomorrow, and you said I could buy some Pokemon cards with my allowance.” He then adds, “It’s my money”.
Mom firmly replies, “Son, I am not going to the store before bedtime for Pokemon cards. Now go brush your teeth and get into bed.”
Adam becomes desperate and agitated, “Why can’t I get them now? I need them for tomorrow”.
The situation escalates, and mom is losing her cool. She is making lunches for the next day. She firmly puts a stop to the discussion and says “Go upstairs and get ready for bed or you won’t get any cards period”.
Adam face turns red, and he stomps upstairs, mumbling sweet nothings under his breath, kicking some shoes off the stairs left there from the day before.
Mom’s blood pressure rises, and she ends up snapping at the next person who comes downstairs, older sister Megan who just wants to ask for someone to help her with homework.
So what went wrong?
Here is what reflective parenting teaches us to ask: What is Adam’s motivation? By simply asking this question of Adam, mom would have gained some insight into the fact that Adam had promised his friends at school that he would bring Pokemon cards to school the next day so they could play at recess. By simply engaging her son into a discussion, Mom would also realize, that Adam keeping his word is important to him, and so are his friendships. Reflective parenting teaches mom to stop and have conversations with Adam when she sees Adam’s behavior begin to look agitated or frustrated. If mom had been using reflective parenting, she would understand Adam’s intentions.
The main takeaway is for parents to be less reactive and more interactive, while realizing that each of us have our own way of tackling problems. In the situation above, the mother reacted to Adam’s request without learning Adam’s intentions. If she knew her son was making an attempt to keep his word and maintain friendships, do you think she might have changed her mind? Instead, this busy mother reacted to this request by enforcing the status quo, and saying, go to bed. Adam leaves the interaction defeated and feeling like his mother doesn’t understand him. The likelihood of him asking his mother for help in the future has just decreased.
Reflective parenting is very easy to begin, and takes little investment by the parents. By starting the process in early childhood or in later adolescent, we can connect with our children, and create lasting bonds. This method has a proven track record to increase compliance with house rules, decrease arguing in teenagers, and increase the likelihood that your older children will continue to communicate with you even when they become independent.
By exercising observation, wonder, and intuition, we might come just a little bit closer to grasping what another person’s experience is like, but ultimately, we must come to realize that We all have separate minds and separate experiences, each unique and valuable in its own way.
“We can proceed according to the planned itinerary, strenuously trying to make life conform to our needs, or we can adapt to whatever we meet and flow without effort.” Piero Ferrucci
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