Be the mirror your child needs

Dr. Robert Ritzema

January 3, 2021

How can we help our children or grandchildren develop healthy self-concepts? Among the many things that help young children gain a healthy sense of self, one of the most important is serving as an accurate mirror for the child’s actions and reactions.

According to an approach known as Self Psychology, children come to know themselves in the course of interacting with others. One essential way that parents, grandparents, and other caregivers interact with a child is serving as a mirror for the child’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Just as we know how we look by seeing our reflection in a mirror, we know who we are by receiving accurate feedback (mirroring) from those around us. But if the mirroring is inaccurate, it is as if we are looking in a funhouse mirror that gives us a distorted picture of who we are.

Being a good reflection

Consider a toddler who is fussy because an unchanged diaper feels uncomfortable. A parent who is good at mirroring accurately takes stock of the situation and says something like “Oh, I bet that wet diaper doesn’t feel any good at all. Let’s get you changed.” The child not only gets relief from misery, but learns that their discomfort matters and it’s okay to express distress.

Being a distortion

On the other hand, a parent could respond as a distorted mirror: “You’re so angry! You’ve got nothing to complain about. You’ll have to go in time out until you calm down.” In that case, the child not only doesn’t get relief from the wet diaper, but receives the message that their discomfort isn’t real and shouldn’t be expressed. Multiplied thousands of times over the course of such daily activities as feeding, dressing, play, and naps, the child who isn’t mirrored accurately is likely to develop numerous false perceptions of herself, such as:

  • “My impulses can’t be trusted.”
  • “I’m bad.”
  • “I can’t rely on my feelings.”
  • “The only thing I’m good for is to take care of others.”
  • “I should feel guilty for having needs.”

Even some of the things that parents convey that superficially seem affirming can lead to a distorted self-concept if they don’t mirror the child accurately. Consider, for example, the faulty sense of self that could result from messages such as “You’re better than everyone else” and “Other people should always cater to your desires.”

Find a reflective community

The primary adults who serve as mirrors for young children are of course the parents. But there are others who can provide accurate reflections as well, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In fact, those secondary “mirrors” can often serve as valuable correctives to a parent who is providing a false reflection to the child. In my work with adults who suffered emotional damage in childhood, sometimes a client is only able to accept that they might be of worth and have something to offer because a grandparent or other relative mirrored that to them.

Living into God’s image

In mirroring accurately for the children in our lives, we are doing for them what God does for us. In a world which constantly tells us false things about ourselves, God is the faithful mirror who constantly affirms who we are in him. For example, in Psalm 4, those around the psalmist convey shame over what should be valued:

“How long will you people turn my glory into shame?” (v. 2a, NIV).

By turning to how God responds to him, the psalmist is able to see himself more accurately:

“Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the lord hears when I call to him” (v. 3).

Day in and day out, God mirrors accurately who we are. We are created with great worth that isn’t invalidated by the wrongs to which we are prone. We are loved by him, meant to live joyfully in relationship to him and others. It is our responsibility and privilege to mirror others as he does us. If we serve as accurate mirrors for our children, they will develop healthy self-concepts. This in turn will equip them well to deal with the false messages they will receive along life’s path.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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