Marie Murray wrote an excellent piece recently in The Irish Times Health Supplement on the subject of explaining and reflecting a child’s emotion back to them.
Children are not born with control over their feelings. This is a skill they learn through interaction with their carers. Just as children learn to dress themselves, they also learn to control their feelings and to express their feelings in a constructive and clear way. Mastery of emotions is further enhanced when they are linked to corresponding behaviours.
This is best understood by way of example.
Sarah and Kate are friends and are 4 years of age. They are playing in the lawn and taking turns at kicking the ball into the goal where Sarah’s mother is the goalkeeper. It is Sarah’s turn to get the ball but Kate takes it.
Sarah storms over to her mother and says
“I am not playing anymore with Kate, I hate her and this is a stupid game”.
Sarah’s mother then says to Sarah in a soothing voice:-
“Sarah you are angry with Kate right now. She did not wait for her turn and now you do not want to play with her”. Sometimes these things happen and it is ok to be annoyed. I am sure Kate didn’t mean it”
Here Sarah’s feelings and subsequent behaviours are explained to her by her mother. The more this is done by Sarah’s mother in various circumstances, the more Sarah can then make sense of why she is feeling and behaving towards Kate in this particular way.
Explaining and reflecting reassures and calms Sarah as her mother expresses to her what she may be feeling. Sarah can also see in her mother’s eyes that her mother is being empathic towards her. Contrary to popular belief, acknowledging Sarah’s feelings does not encourage her to be angrier.
Sarah has learned from previous experience that when her feelings have been acknowledged by her mother, she has felt calmer and in control. This repeated explaining and reflecting process helps Sarah understand and regulate her emotions as she learns that her feelings will not overwhelm her. Regulation happens as Sarah learns that she is able to imitate her mother’s responses and attitude and previous difficult emotions suddenly become more manageable.
· In the above example, Sarah can tolerate her frustration with Kate because her mother is emotionally available to her.er Her mother is able to accurately acknowledge and reflect how Sarah felt and behaved at that moment. Her mother’s empathy reveals to Sarah that she is understood. Her mother also offers a hypothesis to Sarah - that Kate didn’t mean it. Effectively, her mother is able to ‘take in’ or contain Sarah’s anger. This has the effect of detoxifying the intensity of Sarah’s anger for her, so she can understand and eventually come to terms with her experience. The ability of a carer to take in or contain a child’s emotions is a key element in ensuring a secure attachment in a child’s emotional landscape.
I would recommend you read Marie Murray’s article in full.
Below, I have also outlined some information on the Psychological concepts that are relevant to this area together with links for further reading.
Explaining and Reflecting: This is called Parental Affect Mirroring in the Psychological literature. One of the key thinkers in this area is Professor Peter Fonagy of University College London. Follow this link for an extract from his seminal book Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of The Self.
The act of a mother being emotionally available to her child is called, “maternal reverie” in the psychological literature. This was a concept introduced by the British Psychologist Wilfred Bion in the nineteen sixties. Interestingly, Bion was also a key thinker in the area of Group Dynamics and his ideas have been incorporated into military training around the world.
The taking in of anger is known as containment. Again Bion was a key thinker in this area. See the links above for references.