The Greatest Gift You Can Give Your Child
Do you have high or low RF? One guiding principle to keep parents on track.
Posted Sep 17, 2020
Some months ago, a mother came to see me because her 4-year-old was “not listening.” After we settled onto the office floor (these were pre-COVID times) and played with some figurines for a while, I asked the mom to step into the waiting room and return in a few minutes.
Her son watched her leave and then returned to our imaginary play. Eventually, our play reached an exciting climax, at which point he stood up, squealed with delight, and then collapsed onto the couch. Catching his breath, he rolled over and grabbed his apple sauce pouch. He held it over his face and then slowly slid it down just below his eyes so I could see him. “I see you!” I said, and we both laughed at our game of hide-and-seek.
Just then, his mom entered the room.
“You’ve been lying there with that pouch in your mouth the whole time?” she said, her hand still on the doorknob.
She walked over to him and took the pouch away. Her son stayed quiet, staring hard at the ground, the anger swelling inside him. A few moments later, Mom asked him to get off the couch and he didn't respond. Mom turned to me with a look of exasperation as if to say, “You see, he won’t listen!"
Misunderstandings like these happen all the time. Not because parents don't want the best for their children, but because our expectations shape what we see.
Generally, our expectations serve us well. They help us imagine the future and navigate a complex world that might otherwise overwhelm us. But sometimes our expectations can lead us astray. When this happens repeatedly, parents are likely suffering from low reflective functioning (RF).
RF is a parent's capacity to be curious about their child's actual experience. It is one of the most robust predictors of attachment security, self-esteem, relationship satisfaction, the capacity to empathize, social cognition, and self-regulation (Fonagy, 2005).
Parents with high RF wonder about their own and their child's internal states, such as intentions, feelings, wishes, physical experiences. They use their curiosity to understand the meaning of their child's behaviors and to guide their responses. They understand that behavior can be deceptive, particularly in young children. They know that a child may act angry when they feel hurt, or may run away when they need a hug. That a child may be resistant when they’re feeling ashamed, or silly when they’re feeling scared. That they may have tantrums when they are hungry or become hyper when they’re tired.
Parents who struggle with RF tend to have fixed, negative judgments of their child's behavior. They tend to respond to behavior with simple punishments and rewards. There’s nothing wrong with punishments and rewards—they have their place—but if parents are doling them out without understanding the cause of the behavior, the root of the problem may never get addressed.
RF is particularly important when parenting young children and infants because they generally lack the capacity to understand and explain themselves. When misunderstandings occur, they cannot clarify their intentions. Instead, they respond the only way they know how: through their behavior. They may sulk, throw tantrums, or become obstinate, which may just end up reinforcing a parent's negative expectations.
How Reflective Functioning Develops
Parents who have experienced challenging relationships in their own childhood are more likely to struggle with RF. This is because, according to Attachment Theory, our basic expectations of ourselves and others develop in the context of our relationship with our own parents. If these relationships were loving, then we come to understand ourselves as lovable and others as trustworthy. If they were abusive, neglectful, or difficult in other ways, we may question whether we deserve to be loved and whether others deserve to be trusted.
When adults with difficult childhood relationships become parents, they often bring the same doubts and fears to their relationships with their children. For instance, a parent who grew up questioning whether they could rely on others or deserved to be cared for is more likely to instinctively blame themselves or their child when something goes wrong.
For these parents, the question, “Is there something wrong with me as a parent or with my child?” (a question all parents ask at some point) may not be a literal one. It may be a rhetorical one that reflects a long-standing fear that something really is wrong with them. The preoccupation with figuring out who is to blame interferes with the process of understanding what is going on.
Our expectations of ourselves and others are held so deeply and occur so automatically that they can be difficult to even notice, especially since they may only be evoked by certain children. The parent who fears big emotions, for instance, is more likely to be triggered by the child who struggles to self-soothe. And the child who struggles to self-soothe is more likely to struggle even more when their parent fears their emotions. Negatively reinforcing cycles are, therefore, more likely to develop when children and parents are already struggling.
The Key to Improving Reflective Functioning
Reflective functioning is not set in stone. Even if you've experienced the most difficult childhood, you can still improve your RF. So, how do you do this?
There is one guiding principle that can keep you on the right track: Look for the most benign explanation for your child's behavior. This doesn’t mean putting a positive spin on everything your child does or condoning all of their behaviors. It means looking for the most generous interpretation of their behavior.
This is not to say that children never have unkind or malicious intentions. Usually, their behavior, like ours, is motived by multiple factors. When a child hits their sibling, for instance, they may be seeking revenge, be tired so have less impulse control, and feel sad about having been excluded all at the same time.
If the child is repeatedly seen as vengeful, though, they will come to understand themselves as such and act that way. If they are seen as sad or tired, they will come to understand when and why they have these feelings and how to cope with them.
So, how parents choose to see and respond to their child, will shape how their child come to see and understand themselves.
Helping your child develop this compassionate self-knowledge is the greatest gift you can give them. It's what allows them to hold onto a sense of being good even when they are not at their best, so they can afford to recognize their weaknesses and learn from their mistakes. And it's what allows them to empathize with others, so they can negotiate conflict and maintain relationships despite the ups and downs.
Giving Yourself the Gift, Too
Over time, the mom I saw in my office came to understand that when her son was “not listening,” he was angry, and there was a benign reason for his anger. When he became angry, she would rewind the tape in her own mind, to wonder what happened in the moments just before he became angry. Even when she couldn't figure out why he was angry, his experience of her trying to understand him, rather than becoming exasperated, usually helped dissipate his anger. When she was able to understand his anger, he felt understood and she got the opportunity to help him begin to understand what he could do when he felt angry rather than simply falling mute.
When parents look for benign intentions, they give their children a chance to do something different and become someone better. But in order to do this, parents must first be able to have compassion for themselves. If parents have difficulty tolerating their own emotions (e.g. if they fear anger or feel ashamed of themselves) they will have difficulty offering genuinely compassionate understanding to their child.
This is the real challenge of being a parent: being able to look at the mirror your child holds up to you. Seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly, without feeling that these limitations and challenges define you. Can you begin to understand your own intentions, past and present, as benign? Rest assured that even if you wish you had done something differently, you were and are doing the best you can, as is your child.
Fonagy P, Target M. Bridging the transmission gap: an end to an important mystery of attachment research. Attach Hum Dev. 2005;7(3):333–43.