A friend can't understand why her son is having trouble getting his life together. He is a bright young man. He grew up in an affluent area with good schools. She regards herself as an ideal mother. She provided him with good advice. She instructed him to think positively about himself and supplied him with affirmations to repeat every morning.
As in any household, there were rules. When the boy broke them, his parents yelled at him. They threatened severe punishment. But when he repeated an offense, his parents repeated their response. They yelled and threatened severe punishment. Didn't they realize the punishment was too severe to apply? Did they really believe extreme threats would make hands-on parenting unnecessary?
In any case, they were too busy with their preferred activities to supervise him or to reliably enforce household rules with appropriate consequences. The scenario was repeated endlessly. The boy did what he did before: He ignored their rules. The parents did what they did before: They yelled and threatened severe punishment.
Research shows that sometimes just one frightening episode in the early caregiver-child relationship can result in insecure attachment. Susan Woodhouse, a researcher and associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University, says, "If the mother did frightening things when the baby cried, like hard yelling ... even if it only happened one time, the baby would be insecure."
This may explain why the boy's attachment to his parents was not valuable enough for him to care about their disapproval. Being yelled at was an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to do as he wished. He did not realize he was paying a price developmentally. With no need to follow rules, he gained little ability to delay gratification. With no mirroring, he developed only a weak sense of identity.
Mirroring refers to a set of behaviors that are intended to convey to the child that they are heard and that the parents understand their emotional state. For instance, you can mirror by repeating the words back at the child, or by matching their tone of voice.
Though a physical mirror reveals how we look, we need psychological mirroring to sense who we are. It is said that when a tree falls in the forest, there is no sound unless someone hears it. Similarly, we may not experience the self as real unless someone reflects their experience of us back to us. In other words, when we lack mirroring, the experience we have of our own self is not as strong as the experience we have of others.
We Do Not Become a Person by Thinking
Descartes famously said, "I think therefore I am." That is incorrect. We do not become a person by thinking. We become a person through psychological mirroring: "I am mirrored therefore I am."
Although children do not become people by being yelled at, megaphone parenting is still quite common. In a blog about parenting and children, Whitney Cummings writes, "More often than not, we use emotional manipulation to get the results that make our lives easier instead of the ones that make their lives more successful."
Yelling, Cummings says, conditions a child to not think. Because it is threatening, yelling triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response. Since a young child cannot fight or flee, they freeze. In the freeze response, executive function — our high-level thinking — shuts down. A child trained to not think is unprepared to make good choices, particularly when a choice must be made under stress.
This boy's parents expected him to excel. But being unmirrored and yelled at, he made poor choices academically and personally.
Related to, Responded to, or Reacted to
We do not become human alone. Not being known, mirrored, and related to is a psychologically difficult form of isolation. Not being related to creates a state of inner loneliness that a child cannot tolerate for long. When no longer able to tolerate not being related to, the child may abandon his authentic self and adopt a personality that hopefully will be responded to. A child may adopt the personality of a parent, a sibling, or another role model. A child tries on one personality after another, until stumbling upon one that others reward or respond to. If that fails, the child adopts a personality that others react to with anger. If that results in too much danger, trauma, or fear, the child withdraws into their isolated inner world.
What Parents Can Do
Much has been learned about what kind of parenting leads to healthy development in a child. There are many resources, but here's one to start with.
What Those of Us Who Were Unmirrored and Unresponded to Can Do
Dr. James Masterson said everyone needs good mirroring. Unfortunately, to get good mirroring you have to pay for it. By that he meant therapy. He believed accurate mirroring is available only from a neutral person who provided unbiased mirroring in exchange for being paid for their time. Other people, people who provide mirroring without being paid for their time, can provide mirroring that is biased by an agenda of one kind or another.