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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Power of Reflected Appraisals

August 7, 2013

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Children develop a sense of self via the process of internalizing the reflected appraisals of significant others (i.e. parents, teachers). Like a mirror, the faces of those charged with the task of caring for and teaching evolving children may reflect back either a sense that everything is okay or something is amiss. Adults who consistently exhibit a sense of worry regarding a child are unknowingly communicating that worry which, in turn, becomes a part of that child’s core identity. Children who are regularly exposed to reflections of worry, frustration, anger, or disappointment will internalize those feelings about themselves, resulting in low confidence, self-esteem, and, in the extreme, depression. Of course, we all may experience, at times, these kinds of feelings about children. Adults responsible for the care and growth of children are not expected to be perfect or infallible. However, the principle of the “good enough” parent/teacher stipulates that we more often than not reflect constructive feedback to kids. Children who receive positive reflections more often than not will develop a sense of identity that is characterized by feeling “good enough” vs. one of feeling not good enough.

What factors determine the direction of reflected appraisals? Here, we must consider the contributions of temperament and induced emotions. Each of us is born with a temperament that dictates the following important characteristics: activity level; mood; adaptability; sensitivity to stimulation; rhythm (i.e. how regular we are about eating, sleeping, etc.). A dilemma arises when adults and children have significant differences in temperament as this will result in a lack of chemistry or poor goodness of fit. For example, a very active child will tax the patience of a more sedate adult. When there is a lack of a match in the child/adult dyad, there is a more likely chance that the reflected appraisals will be negative. In essence, adults who expect children to be like them will be disappointed by the lack of match and consistently reflect that disappointment, inducing in children a feeling of falling short.

Yet, it is highly likely that adults will experience at some time or in some way a lack of match between themselves and their children. What can be done to shield children from our own sense of disappointment or frustration? The answer is not a simple one. It involves tolerating intolerable feelings (i.e. “My child is too short, not smart enough, not an athlete, etc.”) and differentiating between “real” deficits vs. perceived ones.  Once we are able to tolerate what we view as deficits, we can avoid reflecting back the negative by a process of emotional dialysis-removing the toxic emotions that drive negative reflections. We can then use the information regarding any “actual” vs. perceived deficits/weaknesses to support children by imparting compensatory strategies for those areas that will pose an obstacle to their pursuit of success and happiness.

This is a tall order. However, it is possible to achieve. Children who can dig into their core and find internalized reflections of being good enough will prove to be resilient and have the inner strength to rise to the challenges in life we all will inevitably face.

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