Practicing the Art of Reflective Thinking to Increase Meaningful Connections
by Greg Burnham, LMFT, Clinical Director @ outBACK
As a therapist I am often at a loss for thinking about the difference between a tool and an insight. Often, insights lead to spontaneous tools and practicing tools lead to insights. They tend to feed off of each other. Except when they do not. When they do not, we find that a tool has just become an empty thing that is not doing what it was intended for, or an insight is either used to mentally beat ourselves up or justify our actions. We all know that to change we must take some sort of action that helps us to have deeper understandings of ourselves to change.
This to me means that a tool we must develop is the tool of metacognition. Or the tool of learning to think about our thinking. I would add that we would say the tool of meta-action, the act of thinking about our actions and reflecting upon them (just something I made up). I love to consider how life is about experimentation and reflection and in fact, those two ideas might replace the idea of tools and insight.
We all know how hard it is to not be too hard on ourselves. We are deeply self-critical and struggle to give ourselves the appropriate grace in our learning and growth journey. There are many different directions we can take with the aforementioned framework but for this reflection I would like to suggest a specific direction. I would like us to think about the words, phrases, insinuations, etc., that we use with our children and ourselves that kick us out of the experimentation and reflection frame of reference and also examine the ones that we can use to keep us in the game.
First would be “either/or” phrases that suggest good or bad, success or failure, quick fix vs long term growth, feeling bad as a motivator vs some other source to motivate. Specific examples would include questions that would ask why. Why questions often infer blame or begin a path of thinking that kicks us and our kids out of the reflective space. Another example would be questions that are leading or loaded. Questions to which we do not really want to know the answers. Questions that put us all in a corner. Questions during times of feeling fear or anxiety.
Let us take this example: your child comes home from an evening activity, and you see an opportunity to connect. What do you do? What do you say?
1. Think About Timing
- Is it late? Are they tired? Do they seem chatty? What is your relationship status with them? What is their overall mood? What is your purpose?
2. Think About the Last Few Times That You Have Asked Them Questions
- Did you ask them heavy questions last time? What are you most interested in helping them think about and reflect on? Have you had time to just allow them to share without teaching or questions?
3. Think About It as a Complex Decision Tree
4. Think About Whether Your Personalities and Styles Align
- If you are unmatched, you will need to prioritize relationship building and less on questioning or teaching. If you are matched, it would be beneficial to make sure you are inviting reflection and not simply going with the flow.
5. Find Ways to Connect and Be Excited About What They Like to Do
- If they like to shop and you think shopping is a waste of time, then find out how to get excited about their purchases. If their clothing style is not what you would like them to wear, then find a way to tell them how great they look.
To invite reflection, we must be willing to allow mistakes. To become more comfortable with mistakes is a practice that benefits the child, yourself as a parent, and your entire family system. And one of the best ways to do this is to pause and breathe! Fight the need to say something when listening is what is necessary. Fight the need to drill them when building a relationship is necessary. Fight the need to go quiet for too long when guidance and support is necessary. Fight the need to shut down when stepping up and expressing is necessary. Whatever your style is, stay in the game.
How do you stay in the game? Well, there are some tricks. For example, you can say things like, “I am struggling but know that I love you and I want you to learn through your own journey. While I am feeling some emotions, they are about me and not about you.” or “My fear is about me not about you. I want you to think for yourself and to become more self-reflective and find your own learning that I cannot teach you.” or “If you would like my advice, I am happy to share it but know that I believe in you and I do not need to give you my advice. You are smart and capable.” There are many different variations on this theme. Ultimately, we are inviting reflection and we can think about how we as parents learned to reflect. It was not because someone was always there telling us what to think. We had many complex and problematic thoughts and actions that we had to find our way through.
Our job is to create the relationship which in turn creates the container for reflection. It allows them to feel safe experimenting, making mistakes, and seeking guidance when it would be helpful. The hope is to afford them the chance to not have to think about pleasing us but instead to reflect on their life, to reflect on their actions, and to be an effective experimenter. I know all of this is easier said than done. In many cases this sort of work could take years to grow into with our children. I know it did for me with one of my children; close to 3 years to be exact. And it is worth every minute of struggle to learn how to have a relationship with a child that struggles and with which you may not initially be well aligned when it comes to personality and personal styles. Some of the critical components to hold are keep it up, do not quit, and know that you and your child are worth it!
Greg Burnham, MS, LMFT
outBACK Therapeutic Expeditions