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How To Improve Your Children’s Self-Esteem And Behaviour With Reflective Language

‘Reflective language’ will allow you to acknowledge and validate children’s feelings, boosting self-esteem and improving behaviour in one fell swoop, says Cath Hunter...

  • How To Improve Your Children’s Self-Esteem And Behaviour With Reflective Language

Carol, a nursery worker, came to see me as she was concerned about Matthew, who was four. He was very loud and talkative at nursery, constantly interrupting and talking over both adults and children, and found it very hard to sit still.

He had three teenage siblings and the house was often very busy and loud. Matthew had learnt that he needed to be loud to be heard, and to interrupt to ensure he was listened to. So I encouraged Carol to try ‘reflective language’ with him…

A strong and positive message

Reflective language is a subtle way of providing positive messages to a child. It conveys to the child that you are seeing them, trying to understand them and acknowledging any feelings they may be experiencing. It is also provides an opportunity to tentatively explore what may be happening for a child – for example, “It can feel frustrating when we get things wrong.

It enables adults to gently explore the child’s experience without making judgements or assumptions about it.

On this particular occasion, I suggested that Carol acknowledge to Matthew how difficult it was for him to wait and to reflect: “I can see it’s very hard for you to listen to other people and wait for your turn to talk, but I can help you to practise that and you will always have your time to talk.

This reflection gave a strong and positive message to Matthew that he was worth thinking about and trying to understand.

I encouraged her to talk to him afterwards, and to identify and praise each time he was able to wait to talk by reflecting: “I could see that it was so hard for you not to talk when we were listening to Jodie, but you did really well at waiting until it was your turn.

This acknowledges his struggle, identifies what he is trying to do and validates his behaviour, which encourages him to continue trying with something that he has found difficult.

The benefits

There are many advantages to using this type of approach with children. Firstly, it clearly communicates to a child ‘I see you, I hear you, I am trying to understand you’, enabling them to feel seen, heard, valued and understood.

For some children, this can be a relatively new experience, offering a positive way of building a connection and developing a relationship with a child. Using words such as ‘Perhaps’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘Sometimes’ in our interactions, for example, enables children to agree or disagree if they want to, rather than the adult deciding how the child may be feeling.

It also provides a commentary of their behaviour – for example, “I can see you are working really hard trying to fit those pieces together.” By using this with children, adults are providing a positive message to them: ‘You are worth thinking about and trying to understand; I am trying to help you to work out how you feel and support you with understanding and managing your feelings’.

It also promotes emotional health and wellbeing by validating the child’s emotional needs, and acknowledges the child’s experiences and feelings. As there is no judgement attached to these comments, it enables the child to feel accepted and therefore builds confidence, self-esteem and promotes a sense of self-worth.

Using this approach with children also enables adults to reflect on the possible reasons for their behaviour, whilst maintaining clear and firm boundaries with them. For example, “I can see that you are getting really cross; you look furious, but it’s not okay to hurt other people. We need to find another way for you to have your feelings and not hurt anyone.

This response provides a clear message to the child that they are important, because it is validating rather than dismissing their feelings and offers the child support with expressing them. It can be a powerful tool to change children’s behaviour.

In practice

Reflective language can be used throughout the day, by thinking about and commenting on what is happening and tentatively exploring what a child may be experiencing.

For instance, if a child is struggling or finding a task difficult, it can help to reflect, “It can be difficult when we get things wrong” or “It can feel frustrating when we are trying to do something and we can’t work out how to do it.” This enables the child to feel noticed and understood, along with helping them to identify how frustration feels.

Gradually, this will enable the child to link the feeling with the word and to make that connection themselves – which may in turn enable them to use the word themselves when they next have that feeling. It helps if staff are able to use this and comment on their own feelings –  “I felt sad when I was unwell and missed the school trip,” for example.

It’s beneficial to use reflective language rather than reprimanding children, because as highlighted above, it acknowledges and validates their feelings and experiences. It provides the children with a very positive message about themselves, reinforces that the child is important as an individual in their own right, and provides a clear sense of acceptance of who they are as a person.

It’s an approach that promotes an awareness of children’s own emotions, along with sensitivity to the emotions of other people, with the result that they will have an increased ability to put those feelings into words.

Using reflective language enables children to feel seen, heard, valued and understood – all essential ingredients to build their confidence and self-esteem. Like anything new, using reflective language may feel strange at first, and you may not see instant results. But keep practising and persevering, and I am sure you will see it can make a positive difference to children.

Positive responses

A reflective language statement has five components:

1. Communicates empathy

2. Shows understanding of what the child may be experiencing

3. Tentatively explores possible feelings

4. Describes the situation

5. Offers help and maintains boundaries

Validating children

Five reflective responses and the messages they convey…

‘I’ve been thinking about how hard it is for you to sit on the carpet… ‘
You are worth thinking about

‘I’m going to ask Mrs. Jones to spend some time with you and teach you how to put your coat on; I can see it frustrates you when you try to do it…’
You are worth helping and your feelings are important

‘It’s important that everyone has a turn at being at the front of the line…’
Your needs matter

‘It can be really difficult when you are playing on the bike and it’s someone else’s turn…’
You are important

‘I can see you look unsure about what to do…’
You are worth noticing

Cath Hunter is is a therapeutic consultant, trainer, play therapist and author; her latest book, Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviour through Group Work Ages 3–5 is available now, published by Routledge

For more information, visit therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk or follow @CathTFI


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