Magical Mirror Language
How To Use Reflective Language To Understand Your Child Better
Communication is two-way. I tell you something and you tell me something. But it is also about the connection it creates. In that exchange of information, whether that’s about the meaning of life or the weather, we interact, we share. And that is the magic third part of the equation. Not only an exchange, but something created for both of you.
When interacting with your child, it is important to think about the language you use. You want to understand each other in that moment. And you want to develop a stronger relationship over time. Reflective language is a method used to help draw out blocked or unlabelled feelings. Using reflective language will help you understand your child. It will help them understand themselves. And it will give them the skills to communicate with confidence.
So how does this work? The key skill of reflective language, as the name suggests, is to reflect back your child’s feelings to them. Be like a mirror. You will not only reflect what they say, but also what you see and sense. Reflective language does this through the use of ‘I wonder’ or ‘as if’ phrases.
“I wonder if you are feeling sad.”
“I wonder if you are cross. You have a scowl.”
“You seem as if you’re upset.”
“You look as if you’re sad.”
Searching, Not Stating
Though this may seem vague, being vague is useful when you are trying to find out what is going on for your child. It can be difficult for us to grasp exactly what someone is feeling. Being vague allows your child to give you more information and encourages them to find their own words. “You look as if you’re unhappy” is a good place to start. You could also use ‘upset’ which can cover a variety of feelings. You might use the word ‘wobbly’ instead of ‘angry.’ The admission of anger can be difficult, even if your child clearly is angry, so using words like these doesn’t put them on the spot.
Speaking of which, allow your child, especially if very upset, a ‘way out’ if they are not yet ready to open up and talk. It is okay for your child to deny their private feelings until they are ready to acknowledge them. They may say, “I’m OK!”, but actually mean, “Leave me alone.” And that is OK – for now. The essential as if or I wonder phrase gives permission to come back to the subject at another time. Your child can choose to answer or not. Then you could try, “It’s hard to talk about feelings right now.” Or say, “You feel OK right now….but I’m here anytime you want to talk about how you feel.”
Mirror language is a way of searching out rather than stating. You are looking for what your child may be feeling, and they are looking for the words with which to tell you. Through the I wonder and as if phrases, and through your observations, you are helping them to build a useful vocabulary. You are also allowing them to reveal themself at their own pace.
Recognising And Labelling
Being able to recognise and label feelings is a skill. You can teach them this by demonstrating an active interest in your own inner life. For example, explain why you react the way you do – “I feel sad when…”. But never express your emotions when you feel uncontained. Using things like emotion cards and games can help your child too. The images show particular facial expressions and you can help your child put a name to each one. Having a greater emotional vocabulary will help your child let you know what they are feeling. Being able to label feelings can also help reduce their power.
Another element of recognising and labelling feelings that you can add in is to link emotions with the body. Again, you can demonstrate how this goes for you. So for example, “When I feel angry I can feel it in my tummy. I wonder where you feel angry.” “When I’m cross, it feels like I have a knot in my head.” Making this link will help your child recognise their feelings at an earlier stage and gain more control over them. It will also help you to understand what is going on, such as when your child says they have a tummyache but are really anxious about school.
Trust In The Moment
Trust is important in this process. You want your child to trust you and come to you with their feelings. Your tone of voice, expression and posture will all help with this. Keep your voice gentle. Try and keep a neutral expression. And keep your posture open, so don’t fold your arms. It can be hard to do in the moment, but you will get better with practice. Obviously you do care, but it can be hard to get this across. We need to make an extra effort sometimes to make sure our body language matches our words.
Reflective language can also help to de-escalate situations. When something has happened, we often fall back to questions. Why did you do that? What should you have done? But these questions can make your child feel overwhelmed. You want them to think when they are struggling with their feelings. The time to think about what happened will come when emotions are calmer. Now is the time to stay with the difficult feelings. Show your child that you understand by reflecting back to them.
So here’s an example of an exchange that happened with a family I worked with.
James had come home from school; he threw his bag across the floor, shouting that he hates school, the teachers and everyone else who goes there, and that he won’t be going back there ever again. “And you can’t make me” he finished. All the time, pointing his finger and fist at his mum.
So mum, who had been feeling fine before this, could very easily have reacted by telling him to pick up his bag and put it where it belongs and to stop shouting and screaming at her. This situation could easily have escalated into a shouting match and a fight for control. This is how things had gone on many occasions in the past. But mum and I had been working on using reflective language, and this was an opportunity to put into practice.
Firstly, mum let him finish. She didn’t rush in to correct, and while James was talking, she began to breathe calmly and remind herself that this wasn’t about her, she was doing OK and she could manage this well. This kind of positive self-talk can be really helpful in moments like this.
Then she said, “It sounds like you have had a pretty awful day, I wonder what’s happened. It sounds like people have been treating you pretty badly to make you feel this angry. It’s hard when you feel this way. I’m glad you can show me how you are feeling.”
As she watched James begin to calm, she suggested a couple of things. “I wonder if we have a drink and a snack, it might help; I’ve got your favourite here. We could always have a chat when you’re ready, I’m here when you want to.”
Mum quietly got his drink and snack ready, putting it close by, saying, “It’s here if you want it.”
Great Work Mum
Mum was doing some great work here. She kept her reflections focussed on how he was feeling, without putting blame on anyone, and she wasn’t taking anything personally. Her boy didn’t need to defend himself or feel he needed to be on the attack. Mum was also showing she was listening to him by reflecting back how he felt. She was able to empathise with him. She also didn’t rush him or try to fix things.
James continued but was now much calmer, and he told his mum what had happened at school.
Someone he thought of as his friend had been mean to him and other children joined in. He had shouted at them and then had been told off by the teacher for shouting. Then the boys had laughed at him for this.
Mum continued to listen and reflect how that must have felt for him. “That’s must have been so upsetting when he did that. You thought he was your friend. You didn’t expect it. It felt so unfair when it was you that got into trouble. I can see why you felt so upset and angry when you got home.”
Now James was much calmer and began to cry. Because he felt his mum wasn’t also against him, he was able to let her comfort him and give him a cuddle. Much later that day they talked again about it and she wondered with him what they could do about it.
Previously, this kind of situation would have escalated into a full-on, aggressive situation in which he would shout, scream, damage things, and had on one occasion hit his own head on the wall. In the past, both he and mum had been left feeling exhausted and full of shame for how they had both dealt with things. But this time, things were different.
In this example, you can see how reflective language can help de-escalate a situation, help a child to communicate how they feel, and model positive behaviour. This method is not a quick-fix approach. While it does work in the moment, it also takes time to practice the skills. But if used regularly, it will help you to understand each other. It will help your child communicate better, with you and other people. And above all, it will bring you closer together.
Now, I wonder if this has been helpful.