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  • Writer's pictureGretchen Seefried

Mirror, Mirror

There can be something disorienting about seeing your reflection. Maybe you spot it in a window or a puddle... It might be blurry in a paper towel dispenser or elongated in a dressing room mirror. You may be distracted, and barely notice what you look like, or study every feature with an overly critical eye. Once in a while, you might look into the glass, and actually take in what you see. But how often have you caught a glimpse of your reflection and not recognized yourself?

Sometimes we may not recognize our emotions too. You’re usually an unflappable employee, but uncharacteristically start lashing out at co-workers, or a formerly social butterfly who begins disconnecting. While the people close to you might notice the incongruence, you may not see it in yourself. In most forms of therapy, the goal is to help clients begin to have that insight and to recognize what their behavior is saying about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.

In Synergetic Play Therapy, we are also reflecting back to our young clients; but in our work, we connect somatic experiences to emotional ones. In other words, we use our bodies and facial expressions and breathing to match the hypo- or hyper-aroused energy we are receiving from the child. When they see our faces and bodies showing fear or frustration or excitement, and hear us name our physiological experience (“ooh, my heart is racing! I’m scared”) and then watch us self-regulate with movement or a long deep breath, they begin to recognize their own physical experiences and start learning how to regulate themselves.

The truth is we are all copycats. Humans are born with a built-in mirror-neuron system and neurons that fire both when we do something and when we watch someone else do something. For example, a newborn will stick out her tongue after watching someone else stick out theirs. (Maybe that’s why I find myself gritting my teeth after texting the bared teeth emoji 🧐)?

Regardless, it is this extraordinary system that explains why and how children imitate the people they spend time with. As a play therapist, I get to feel what the child feels, physically and emotionally. After reflecting it back, I model ways of self-regulating. At the same time, I’m teaching emotional-regulation skills, I’m also giving that child the invaluable message that they are seen, heard, felt, and accepted, unconditionally. Just imagine what it would be like if every child could know the gift of self-regulation, and the experience of self-love…

During these times of fear and uncertainty, modeling regulation is more important than ever, as our children are watching us for cues on how to respond in a crisis. Take breaks during the days ahead to move and breathe together and to show them how a few deep breaths can calm you both physically and mentally. Try not to worry out loud; write down your fears or talk about them when you know the kids are asleep. If you can, try to swap childcare with a close friend so you can each have a break once in a while. Reassure your child that you and other adults are making decisions to keep everyone safe, but don’t dismiss their concerns. Consider setting aside 10 minutes a couple of times a day to let your children talk about worries and fears; when they come up at other times, offer them a paper to write/draw them and then put it aside until the next “worry break”. Feel free to email or call me if you need phone support around parenting during this anxious time.

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