“One of the most precious gifts you can offer your child is your attuned, curious, and attentive mind. Yet in the overwhelm of everyday life, we can often misrecognize and misinterpret our children’s behavior. We may react out of frustration or exhaustion, instead of pausing and thinking and reflecting. In Alistair Cooper and Sheila Redfern’s 2016 book Reflective Parenting: A guide to understanding what’s going on in your child’s mind, the authors provide practical and accessible exercises to support parents in cultivating this curiosity and attentiveness. These practices not only help grow your child’s mind, but also help you grow your curiosity and appreciation of your child’s experience.
One such strategy, the Parent APP (Attention, Perspective Taking, and Providing Empathy), helps you “attune to your child’s experience by appreciating what is going on inside your child’s mind, rather than simply responding to the behavior he displays on the outside”. This leads to a better understanding of your child and a deeper connection with your child.
Attention: The foundation for appreciating your child’s mind is paying attention and showing interest in your child’s thoughts and feelings. In other words, being curious about their internal world. Not simply what are they doing, but why are they doing that? This communicates that their inner world, their “inside story”, is important to you; not just their outside behaviors.
Perspective Taking: Next, with your attention and curiosity you make an effort to see the situation from your child’s point of view. Even though you can never know exactly what your child is experiencing, the effort alone communicates that you are interested in your child’s thoughts and feelings. It also communicates that you and your child have different minds with different experiences, helping your child become more reflective of their own mind. Your child feels more understood, and the two of you feel more connected.
Providing Empathy: While perspective taking involves appreciating that your child has a different mind from yours, empathy involves an emotional response to your child’s experience. As Cooper and Redfern note, “For empathy to be truly communicated to your child, spoken words need to be authentic, non-verbal communication needs to be matched with your words, and the energy and vitality of your communication needs to be pitched at a level that fits with how your child is feeling.” Providing empathy for your child helps them not only feel more understood, but also more available to be curious about the minds of others, thus developing their own reflective capacities.
Though it may be challenging in the most emotionally charged moments to engage in this process, taking time to reflect upon your interactions with your child will build your reflective muscle over time. When we are feeling calm and the timing is right, keeping the Parent APP in mind as you talk with your child can deepen your reflective capacities and nurture your curiosity, empathy, and appreciation of your child’s mind. Appreciating the inner world of our children is one of the joys of parenting and a gift to your child, helping them become more curious and reflective about themselves and others.
Maneesh Saini, LMFT, is Senior Clinician at Parents Place, San Francisco. He provides consultation and therapy to families and children of all ages.”