Making the connection

A new book explains how to use therapy skills to get closer to your kids

Jennifer Kolari wants to turn you into a therapist. In her new book, Connected Parenting, the Toronto-based social worker explains how parents can use a clinical technique called “mirroring” to resolve temper tantrums, sleep problems, food issues, toilet training setbacks… you name it. Mirroring isn’t so much reflecting your child’s experience back to her as it is actually experiencing it — consciously and momentarily — and then showing her you get it through your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. And Kolari says mirroring is much more than a fix for behavioural or emotional problems; she recommends doing it with all kids as a sure way to shore up their confidence and secure their bond to you. The author spoke with Today’s Parent about how — and why — mirroring works.

Mirroring

TP: What’s different about this book compared with other parenting books out there?

JK: A lot of books talk about how important empathy is, how important it is to listen to your kids, but very few tell you how to do it. Empathy is really hard. It’s more of a therapy skill, not necessarily a parenting skill.

TP: You talk about the language of mirroring, how it’s not the “this is how you feel” kind of thing most of us are more familiar with.

JK: Yeah, that’s more active or affective listening — which is great, but a totally different technique. In active or affective listening, you say things like “That must be really hard for you” or “It sounds like you’re having a really hard time.” Some kids will spit back, “Why are you saying everything I’m saying?” or “I just said that!” They react to the fact that you’re making an observation.

TP: So they think it’s a bit stiff?

JK: For some people it can feel like a technique, like the person is saying, “I know something about you.I figured out something about you.” If you told me, “I love my kid, but she’s so awful at home, and everyone else thinks she’s so great,” and I said, “That must make you feel very frustrated,” that would be OK, but a little…meh. But if I say, “Yeah, you know what? You’ve got this kid who everybody loves, everybody thinks is amazing, but she walks in the door and she’s…awful. That’s what you get.” There’s actually a very big difference between the two techniques.

TP: But what is it?

JK: It’s sort of the difference between sitting in a cold bath and sitting in a warm one. Often parents say, “Well, I don’t know, if someone mirrored to me I would hate it.” And I say, “Yeah, because no one wants to feel like a technique’s being done to them.” And then I say, “Did you notice? I just mirrored.”

TP: And it’s not something that you should just wait to come naturally?

JK: If you wait, it won’t come. You really have to think about it. At the same time it should feel very conversational, seamless. Therapists can train for years and years to get really good at it.

Mirroring is something we instinctively do with babies. If your four-month-old comes out of the bath screaming, you don’t say, “Now calm down. You’re fine. You’re going to be OK.” You say, “Oh my goodness, look at you. You’re cold.” The baby sends out a projection: I’m freaking out; I’m cold; I don’t like this. Your face registers that you understand. It’s like emotional sonar. We do it quite naturally.

I have a theory — I’ll prove it one day — that around the time of language acquisition, we start dropping the mirroring. So with the baby coming out of the bath, we mirror. But when it’s a 2½- or three-year-old, what do we do? “You’re fine. Stop screaming. Here’s a towel. You’ll be OK.” He doesn’t get that “message delivered” signal. And this is often when the next baby comes along. So you’ll see a lot of those regressive behaviours, “Pick me up! Uppie uppie!” (Kolari thinks treating toddlers like babies is sometimes a good idea; see Be my little baby.)

TP: There’s an example of a boy who was soiling at age 11. You told his parents to mirror about everything but the soiling. How did that compute to “no more soiling” in his brain and, ultimately, resolve the problem?

JK: Because mirroring builds resilience. The more you feel someone gets you, the more confident you feel about how lovable you are and the less you need behaviours to express yourself.

TP: So when a child’s behaviour is causing problems, you might not know exactly what the issue is, but you’re bound to catch it with the mirroring?

JK: Parents will say, “How can one technique work for all these different disorders?” How can water work for everybody? Or food? This is emotional food, the emotional nutrients we all need. What person on this planet doesn’t want to feel understood? Doesn’t want to feel loved?

Often when parents come to me with food or toileting or sleep issues, I’ll say, “Let’s not touch those right away; just do more generalized mirroring.” Your kid opens the fridge and yells, “Hey! There’s no apple juice! I thought there was apple juice!” Typically we say, “You don’t have to scream” or “You should’ve told me to get apple juice,” all the stuff we throw out as a parent. If we mirrored, we’d say, “Ach, I hate that! You open the fridge, you want something, and it’s not there.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the kid will go, “Yeah. OK, I’ll have something else.”

De-escalating your child’s behaviour and increasing his compliance aren’t even the best reasons to use mirroring, they’re the bonus. The best reason is that over time, his brain becomes more organized and things start to roll off his back that didn’t three or four months before.

Tension

TP: In the book you talk about how parents need to have the “right tension on the rope.” What does that mean?

JK: When I used to rock-climb, if my husband was on belay [anchoring the rope attached to my harness] and I thought he wasn’t focused on me, I would feel the slack on the rope. I would typically get kind of bitchy. “You don’t have me. Where are you?” And I thought, that’s exactly what kids do, only it’s an imaginary rope.

TP: So how do parents know when the tension is right?

JK: You’ll see the best from your child. You’ll see her shoulders back, you’ll see her be more buoyant, you’ll feel things rolling off her, you’ll feel her be more compliant, more lovable. Your other gauge is you. I have moms who feel sick about it, but they dread their child coming home from school. They think, “Oh God, it’s 3:30. What’s he gonna do today?” Kids can feel that, and the less lovable they feel, the more they act out. The more they act out, the more we push or pull back, and that’s when the rope goes slack or gets too tense.

TP: With many families who come to you for therapy, you start by sending the parents home to do mirroring.

JK: Half the time I don’t even see the child. When parents come for the first session, I tell them all this stuff, and then I say: “Now you’re going to have a pretty good week with your kid.” When they come back and I ask how the mirroring was, they say, “We tried it at the beginning of the week, but for some weird reason, we didn’t really have any issues; it was a good week.” It takes so little mirroring to have a big impact. The key is to keep doing it.

Be my little baby

Imagine someone told you to spend 20 minutes a day pretending your six-year-old is still a baby — cooing at her, stroking her hair, encouraging her to goo and ga. It sounds a bit, well, weird. Kolari says this “baby play” will cement your bond with your child (and even, if need be, rescue it).

Baby play, says Kolari, is one kind of “mirroring,” the technique she recommends parents use to handle behavioural issues and bolster kids’ self-esteem. When your child is a baby, says Kolari, you mirror naturally; you gaze into his eyes, rub his nose, tickle his ears, speak in a baby voice, devote yourself to understanding what he’s feeling and letting him know you understand.

But sometimes this process doesn’t happen, for all sorts of reasons. Or it ends too soon for your child (Kolari believes we stop mirroring when kids start talking). Or somehow you and your child have grown apart. Or maybe everything is going along fine. No matter where you find yourself on this continuum, baby play will nourish the relationship, says Kolari.

“Sometimes a parent will say, ‘You know what? Let’s forget that you’re five. For the next few minutes, you’re my little baby,’” she says. Kolari suggests getting out baby pictures and videos, a favourite toy or a beloved blanket. Tell stories about your child’s babyhood. “Most kids, most of the time, eat it up,” she says.

In the book, Kolari tells the story of a mother who said her 14-year-old goth son would “puke” on her if she did baby play with him. Kolari challenged her to try it anyway, and she did. Coming home and finding her son on the sofa, she playfully called out: “Where’s my little 14-year-old?” and started tickling him. Delighted, he tickled back. And later that night, he asked her to tuck him in.