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The Importance of Being a Reflective Parent

16/02/2016 10:54 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 10:12 GMT

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It's virtually impossible to know what's going on in your child's mind, and parents today are finding themselves increasingly challenged by their children not bringing their worries to them, or alternatively challenged by the worries their children do bring to them about their friendships, self-image, school work and future prospects. Often this is to a degree where parents are left feeling that their child has a problem serious enough to warrant the label of a mental health problem. What then is the role of parents in helping children to manage these difficult feelings, and is there any approach they can take both early on and later in their child's development, that might help to prevent some of these everyday worries from turning into a more serious mental health issue?

The social environment of the family a child is raised is pivotal to how a child develops. One important feature within the family environment is how parents respond to their child, especially for parents to adopt a stance of being more reflective with their child. This can start with being curious about what their child's behaviour might mean. Often children won't tell their parents what they are feeling and so parents have to guess and it is helpful to start with the premise that all children's behaviour has meaning and intention - it is rarely random. Recognising this and taking an interested stance towards why a child does what he or she does is important for several reasons.

The first reason is that being reflective as a parent and taking interest how your child is feeling lets them know that you are thinking about and helping him make sense of their feelings. This focus from a parent leads to better outcomes for their children, particularly in managing their feelings and behaviour. The term 'reflective parent' links closely to an established concept within the field of research on parent-child relationships, known as Reflective Functioning. Through his research, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy found that parents who have high 'reflective functioning', that is who are able to consider what is going on in their child's mind as well as being aware of their own thoughts and feelings, bring clear benefits to their children, including promoting secure attachment, good social skills and the ability to 'read' others, and an ability to manage, or regulate, their own emotions, sometimes in difficult and challenging situations or interactions.

Secondly, it seems self-evident that a child's relationship with his parent is incredibly important, and yet parents can often become so focused on getting their child through the important first months and years of their physical development - keeping them fed, clothed and warm - that it's easy to underestimate the importance of their emotional development, particularly during these early years. However, what the research tells us is that it is these very first few years (the first 1001 days) that will help shape the child's ability to understand themselves and others in the world around them. The child's relationship with their parent/s, and the parents' ability to help their child understand their feelings are key to helping them develop the skills they will need to bounce back from adversity throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.

The relationship a child has with his or her parent is a training opportunity. With their parent, they can practice and experience what it's like to be in a relationship, and this training prepares them for interacting with the world of people beyond their family. Teaching them about how other people work, through everyday interactions, will be one of the most important lessons of their life.

Parents have a crucial role to play then in helping their children to learn first what they are feeling, and then to show them that they (the parent) can help them to manage these feelings. This helps children to learn another important lesson, namely that other people (who they trust and who care for them) can be relied on to be helpful and available when they need them. This sets a template for life which is activated at crucial points. For example, if a child who has had this experience in early life is feeling anxious about the pressure of school, or worried that they don't fit in, they will expect that someone close to them is going to want to help them with these feelings. They will also have a complementary model of themselves which says that they are deserving of this care and attention. These things combined lead to feelings of greater trust and security, both in the child's relationship with his parents, and with other people in the world in general. When children, inevitably, experience difficult times then, they know that these can be overcome with support. A child with this kind of relationship with their parent would be more likely to ask their teacher or friend for support when they are struggling. When children lack these experiences with parents or carers, they have a more mistrustful view of other people in the world, and a similarly fragile sense of their own ability to cope with difficulties. These children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and to have difficulty in using and relying on other people to help them through these difficult times.

Sheila is the author of Reflective Parenting: A Guide to Understanding What's Going on in Your Child's Mind published by Routledge which you can buy here.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com