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Think and Feel Your Way into Your Child’s Heart and Mind

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by Jamie Roach

What do your children feel when they catch you looking at them? If you are intentional, your words and actions can help you think and feel your way into your child’s heart and mind. Your carefully attuned presence will give your children the felt sense of being known, safe and loved.

Children learn to view themselves through the eyes of their parents. In other words, the way they perceive you to be thinking of them, they think of themselves. If they think you are disappointed in them, they will be disappointed with themselves. On the other hand, if they truly believe you delight in them because they often catch you looking at them with a gleam in your eye, they come to delight in themselves. Children internalize the interactive experience they have with their parents or other primary caregivers. 

It turns out that one of the most important jobs of a parent is to think and feel their way into their child’s heart and mind. It is not enough to just know them in a cool, detached manner. Our children need to experience us as deeply understanding them and caring for them. They need to feel deeply in their bones that we are holding them in our hearts as they are. It is crucial they know and believe we love and accept them as they are. This involves being able to contain all of their feelings, including anger, sadness, fear, shame and anxiety. 

When our children begin to sense that we cannot hold (or handle) them as they are, they cut off those parts of themselves we were unable to hold in order to make themselves acceptable to us. They then exile these “unacceptable” parts and grow to hate them in themselves and others. Rather than experience an integrated and cohesive sense of self, they tend to feel like they are falling apart or something very important is missing. They can become anxious and perhaps depressed. To cope, they pick up all kinds of adaptive strategies as they seek out a sense of self-worth and belonging. While each of these adaptive strategies (defensives) has a positive intent for the individual, they often wreak havoc in the person’s life, multiplying rather than diminishing the very pain they sought to eliminate.

So how can we think and feel our way into our children’s hearts and minds, giving them the experience of feeling known, safe and loved? To answer this question I want to look at the work of Heinz Kohut, a psychotherapist who developed Self Psychology, a powerful school of therapy within psychodynamic theory. Central to Kohut’s thinking about how healing occurs in the human soul is the idea of empathy. Empathy leads to healing by enabling the child to feel deeply understood. Feeling understood is essential to three critical needs that must be met for healthy self-development.  

 

3 Critical Needs for Healthy Self-Development

Mirroring Needs

Children need to feel validated and truly seen by their parents. I saw a great example of this last night as I watched my oldest daughter looking at her new baby girl. The gleam in her eye as she gazed upon her child in love lit up the entire room. Mirroring needs are met as the young child “catches” their parent looking at them with delight on their faces. These mirroring responses communicate, “I see you, I delight in you, your very presence brings me joy.” This is very different than saying “You did amazing” and communicates the much deeper and more important truth, “You are amazing.”

Idealizing Needs

All children need someone in their life who they can look up to. For healthy development they need someone who will take them under their wing and provide protection and soothing. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Byrson point out that children learn inner regulation through interactive regulation with their parents. Parents need to provide for their children the sense that everything is going to be ok, there is no need to freak out. When your two-year-old or your 12-year-old is having a meltdown, it is exactly at this point, your children most need us to remain solid and not melt down with them.

Twinship Needs

All of us are born with an innate desire to feel alikeness to other human beings, to have a sense of belonging to other humans who are like us. It is in the meeting of this need that a child learns empathy and compassion for others. An example of this desire is seen in the exclamation of the little girl, “I am going to marry Daddy.” Another example is seen in the desire to play dress up and wear mommy’s or daddy’s clothes. 

 

Someone once said, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We communicate to our children how much we care by how much of them we can take into our hearts. James instructs us to be “quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). A big part of being present as a parent is listening to our children. 

In our family, one of the best things we did as parents was to end the day sitting on our children’s bed, just listening. It was not a time to teach or correct but a time to connect. To say with our eyes, we see you. To say with our ears, we hear you. To say with our bodies, we get you. To say with our time, you are worth it.

 

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