How to Reflect Feelings to Your Child
by, Kim Feeney, LISW, RPT-S
One of the easiest ways to help children learn about their feelings is “Reflection.” Reflection helps the child understand the emotions they experience. What exactly is reflecting emotions and how is it achieved? When a child is upset, they are processing with their emotion brain as opposed to their thinking brain.
“Reflecting feelings is determining the feelings and emotions in your child’s verbal and body language and stating (or reflecting) those feelings back to them.” For Example: “You feel frustrated that you don’t understand the math problem,” or “You feel happy when playing with your new truck.”
How Does Reflecting Work
Reflecting does not involve you asking questions, introducing a new topic or leading the conversation in another direction. Children are helped through reflecting as it allows them to understand the sensations each emotion gives to the body. For example, when I am angry, my face becomes hot and my fists clench. Another would be my stomach gets butterflies when I am anxious.
Just reflecting feelings alone can make a child feel validated, understood, and heard. Once the feeling is named, we can, as Dr. Daniel Seigel says, “name it to tame it.” This means, we can then utilize coping skills to regulate us through the strong emotion—such as when my niece is angry her tablet time is completed for the day. The act of telling her, “You are angry that you cannot play on the tablet anymore,” begins to calm her emotion brain and awaken her thinking brain.
Stay Calm and Don’t Add Extras
There are guidelines to remember when reflecting feelings. Be natural. The more authentic your connection is with your child, the sooner they will be able to regulate or calm down. Always remain non-directive and nonjudgmental. If you say to your child, “I see you are angry.” Do not add, I do not appreciate this behavior, as it will escalate the situation.
Look for non-verbal as well as verbal cues. We have all had those conversations where we ask our child how they are feeling. The typical response is a soft, “fine,” although they are slouched and frowning. In this case reflect, “You seem sad about something.” Again, do not question or add meaning to your reflection. As shown in the previous example, “You seem sad about something.” Again, do not add your own thoughts or opinions, as much as you want, to about what happened.
The first step to reflecting is to select a sentence stem:
It sounds like…
What I hear you say is…
Always reflect in present tense. Then add in a feeling word. If you wanted to, you could then add context. Such as, “You feel scared when mommy and daddy leave you alone in the dark.” Our goal in reflecting feelings to our children is to teach them to use “I statements” when describing their emotions. An example would be, “I feel hurt when you don’t have time to play with me.”
Outcomes of Reflecting
At times, one of the outcomes of reflecting feelings to children is the way that it can instantly diffuse the problem. Kids may immediately calm themselves because they feel that someone understands what they are experiencing. When something is frustrating to children, and a parent acknowledges that they know how it feels, the child no longer needs to SHOW how frustrated they are. The desire to act out the feeling disappears, and therefore the undesirable behavior stops.
Another outcome of reflecting feelings is that as kids hear their feelings labeled and put into words, they are able to connect their internal experience to a word. Then in the future, when they feel the same sensations and emotions, they can quickly recall the previous feeling, and communicate verbally instead of acting out.
As you play with your child, you may begin to recognize behavioral patterns. You can then communicate to your child that you are aware of what he or she is feeling. By using this technique you will find you know more about how your child feels, even if he or she never tells you. This also lets your child know you understand what is happening with regard to his or her emotions and moods.
Daniel J. Siegel, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain
"Reflecting Feelings: Definition & Examples." Study.com, 29 August 2017, study.com/academy/lesson/reflecting-feelings-definition-examples.html
About the Author
Kim is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. She is located in Davenport, Iowa. She owns a private practice, Butterfly Beginnings Counseling. You can find more about Kim at www.butterflybeginningscounseling.com