Mirror, Mirror: The Wellspring of Emotional “Literacy”


By: Ruth Cohn, MFT, CST

One of the often undervalued but, in my estimation, most essential tasks of good parenting is the invaluable function of mirroring. And sadly, one of the first things I notice among survivors of childhood neglect is the glaring poverty, often cavernous absence of mirroring, and a consequent lack of emotional tone, vocabulary, expression, and even comprehension. Often, survivors of neglect are frustrated, even annoyed by questions about what they are feeling, perhaps answering with a declarative factual “explanation of something” or a metaphor of some kind, or they simply have no idea what I am talking about. This statement is not a slur or a criticism, but rather an accounting of yet another tragic missing essential experience in the neglect history.

The seemingly simple experience of looking into the eyes of the beloved other and seeing a ready and accurate reflection of me through the right hemisphere to right hemisphere resonance, the gaze, is a royal road. It stimulates early brain development of the brain area that mediates our sense of self. It is how a young child initially begins to learn who they are. The reciprocal exchange of reflection begins shockingly early, and many of us have seen Bessel’s pictures of infants barely hours old, making matching faces, imitating a playful parent. “Monkey see, monkey do!”

Most who lived a childhood of neglect are not even aware of what they have missed until they have a first taste of it. I remember when I first started couple’s therapy in my thirties and learned a structured dialog where my partner, now husband, had to “mirror,” repeat back verbatim the precise words I had said. I was dazzled and then burst into tears. Nobody had ever cared to pay that exquisite, closely longed-for attention that children crave. I first learned about this in the early 1990s from the attachment neuroscientist Allan Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (Routledge 1994). Schore brilliantly connected the essential dots of emotion, the development of self, and the capacity for self-regulation to this primordial experience. Although it was a tough read (!!), it completely transformed my addled mind.

The attuned parent takes the time to learn their child’s “language.” Which cry means “I am hungry!” which cry means “I am cold?” lonely, bored, scared, in pain, sick, whatever the case may be. If the parent interprets promptly and accurately, responding with the needed “supplies,” the child begins to learn, for themselves, how to pair the feeling/experience with the needed supply, and ultimately even learns a more “universal” name or word for it. The incipient experience begins with cultivating and growing emotional vocabulary and, eventually, hopefully, “emotional intelligence.” — Not perfectly of course! In fact, the attachment researchers tell us that the best of the best-attuned parents get it “right” 30% of the time, the remainder being the dogged dance of rupture and repair.

And what if the parent, like my mom, is terrified, anxious, angry, depressed, even expressionless (and most of us have seen the powerful videos of the attachment researcher Ed Tronick’s still face experiments) or simply completely absent? All of these, or the sundry combinations thereof, are aspects of variations of the devastating developmental trauma of childhood neglect.

I was always rather awed and definitely moved and concerned about the massive pain in the world, even though my mother was perhaps the queen of rationality and, besides anger and anxiety, did not show much emotion. Both of my parents had such horrendous Nazi trauma stories, and perhaps I could sense their painful emotions long before I had any clue of my own trauma. Somehow, I knew emotion was important. I remember when I first heard Jaak Panksepp speak at the Trauma Conference about his then-new book, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2004.) I was so excited to hear someone begin to talk about the essential role of emotions and where they reside in the brain. Darwin had talked about them long before, but somehow, I had missed that. Before Panksepp, it had seemed to me as if emotions were discounted or not viewed as important; their key role in communication and bodily function were sidelined, even dismissed. I knew mine always had been, or if not that, were a cause for judgment and reprimand.

The function of emotion in the body is to prepare and orchestrate to mobilize systems for action and behavior. As Gabor Mate reminds us, emotions function in parallel with the body’s immune system, chasing out what is threatening and dangerous and attracting what is nourishing and helpful. Awareness and accurate expression of emotion are key, not only for relationships but for health. And regulation, the ability to restore an equilibrium of calm after being rattled or upset, and the fluid movement between states are fundamental to a general sense of balance and peace. Transmitting and teaching these abilities are crucial parenting tasks.

John Gottman, the marriage researcher, devised a wonderful system for what he calls emotionally coached parenting, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (Fireside Books 1997.) It is so effective that, admittedly, I teach it to adults regularly as I work with so many who never learned about emotions in their trauma/neglect-racked childhoods. The concept is to say back precisely what the child (or whomever the speaker is) said and validate that before adding any kind of teaching or other information. First and foremost, make the child feel heard and understood. These invaluable experiences function to convey essential skills that, sadly, children of neglect and trauma miss out on.

I had the privilege of meeting Dafna Lender at the recent Oxford Trauma Conference. I know she will have much to say about co-regulation and teaching emotional intelligence in her upcoming TRF program, Integrative Family Attachment Therapy. I, for one, am looking forward to it!

Photo Credit: Unsplash by Dan Meyers

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