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Calming family battles with 'reflective parenting'

The battle lines are drawn, and you are facing off against a formidable foe: your child. Whatever you're arguing about, you've been down this road before. Why does your child behave this way? Frustration mounts as you struggle to keep your temper in check.

Welcome to yet another "white-knuckle" moment in parenting. We've all been there, and most of us know that how we handle these moments -- these conflicts -- is important. But what can a harried parent do in the heat of the moment? And if we blow it in this moment, can we turn back the clock later when we're calm?

The answer for some parents may lie in an approach to child-raising called "reflective parenting." Simply put, reflective parenting is interacting with your child while keeping a close eye on his -- and your -- state of mind and emotion. It's empathy, patience, and intuition all rolled into one. Increasing your reflective thinking can bring about a greater understanding of your child, and can give you skills to diffuse those "white-knuckle" moments, says Dr. Arietta Slade, clinical psychologist and researcher at Yale Child Study Center. And the good news is, she says, it's already within each of us to some degree, and there are small and simple things we can do to bring it out.

"Every parent has the capacity to think reflectively," says Slade. "Whether they do or don't is based on a lot of different factors -- how stressed they are, how overloaded they are in life. Reflectiveness is something that comes and goes. If you're completely overwhelmed with feelings, you are less likely to be reflective."

Reflective parenting begins by realizing that that little alien you've created has a deep, rich inner life all his own. Think of your child as an interesting person that you would like to get to know. Dr. John Grienenberger, founder of the Reflective Parenting Program in Los Angeles, says keeping this in mind is key to understanding where your child is coming from in those "white-knuckle" moments.

"One of the reasons parenting is so difficult," Grienenberger says, "is that it involves two contradictory capacities -- one is to be able to understand the connection between ourselves and our children, and the other is to remember that our child is a separate being" Reflective parenting, he explains, is about realizing there are two individuals -- the parent and the child -- that are highly intertwined, but are not the same.

Spend a little time thinking about that separate little being. What is really behind that frustrating behavior? Is your child clinging to your leg because he wants his own way? Or is it something deeper than that -- fear of strangers, perhaps, or a wish to spend more time with you? It's not hard for harried, hurried parents to slip into a kind of adversarial thinking about their child's motivations, Slade says. Often, the simple act of slowing down brings insights. Slade calls this "holding your child in mind."

Next, take a close look at your own behavior. "Parents have a hard time dealing with the fact that if they are angry or stressed that's going to have an impact on their child," says Slade. "They want to think that if they put them in the right program and take them to gym and music, what's going on inside of them isn't going to affect their children." She suggests parents reflect on their own history and goals for their child. For most of us, stress is inevitable; how you cope with your own stress has a big effect on your children, says Slade.

Reflective parenting takes time and patience -- something you don't have in the heat of battle. But even if you blow it during a blow-up, you'll get a second chance, says Grienenberger. "Blow-ups can be readdressed later. Reflective thinking is also about that 'aha' moment that happens hours after an argument, when you sit down and talk about what happened."This talk isn't necessarily about problem-solving, says Grienenberger, but about calmly describing and discussing what happened with your child, giving him more of a sense of self-control.

So, the next time you're locked in battle "...pause in that moment, take a deep breath, and notice that you're in something right now," says Grienenberger. Acknowledge those high emotions to your child. "Sometimes parents can just comment on what they're seeing: 'There are some big feelings here now, and I think this is about more than just can you have another cookie.'" And remember, as parents, we often don't even notice the things that cause our children stress. But their stress is valid -- even if we don't understand it.

Finally, Slade and Grienenberger say you can help create a culture of calm and reflective parenting in your house by giving your child just 15 minutes a day of your undivided attention. Tell your child you're going to spend some time together doing something they choose -- then turn off your cell phone and play. Pay attention to how your child engages with you, and don't teach or correct. "When families do this, it's stunning sometimes the impact that those few minutes have on children being more calm and regulated," says Grienenberger.

"Some parents hate it," says Slade, "because it's not goal-oriented. But turn off your cell phone, get someone to watch the sibling. It's hard to do -- but the payoff is great!"

Kristen Dobson
is ParentMap's managing editor, who reflects on parenting her 7- and 10-year-old children.

Resources for reflective parenting:

Drs. Slade and Grienenberger recommend the following books for parents who want to build skills for reflective parenting:


Originally published in the January, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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