Imagine this: you are sitting in a circle with a group of friends, family, or colleagues. One person is speaking, and everyone else is watching and listening. The speaker is caught mid-sentence with a yawn. Everyone observers the speaker yawning. Soon everyone else in the room is yawning, regardless of whether they felt tired before or not.
It’s a familiar experience. One you may or may not have been conscious of experiencing. And it’s a phenomenon that is the result of something called mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when a person acts AND when a person observes the same action performed by someone else. The neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other person, as though they were acting themselves.
Aside from just being an interesting factoid, this is great news for parents and caregivers. You can utilize your child’s mirror neurons as a tool to help you cope with difficult behaviors and teach them emotional regulation. If you can approach your child in a moment of difficulty, with calm on your face and a relaxed demeanor, you have the power to help that child calm themselves and relax.
Daniel Stern, a prominent psychologist, has said “Mirror neurons ensure that the moment someone sees an emotion on your face, they will at once sense that same feeling within themselves.”
That means you have the POWER to affect your child’s mood and behavior. If you are angry and show it, that will signal to your child to also be angry. But if you can remember that even if your child has triggered your anger and frustration, you are an adult with emotional regulation skills and can calm yourself. If you can take a calming breath and approach them with empathy, that will signal to your child to breathe and relax. You just diffused a very tense moment in your relationship with your child, and cut the stress in half.
Dr. Becky Bailey, our discipline guru, teaches what this looks like:
Let’s say that your child is upset and throwing a tantrum. You reach for them out of a desire to comfort them, but they angrily pull their arm away from you and turn their back on you. They’re not looking at you, so you can’t use their mirror neurons to download calm into them. How do you get them to look at you?
In that moment you say “Your arm went like this . . .” and mimic their motion. Or “Your face just went like this . . .” and copy their facial expression. They will wonder what you’re doing and will look back at you to see what you’re doing with your arm or face.
In that brief second when they look at you, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Their mirror neurons will kick in and they will be tricked into taking a deep breath as well. That will literally download calm into their brain. You still have to deal with the difficult situation at hand, but you are calm and you can handle it. And now your child is calmer, and they can learn from the self-regulation skills you are modeling for them.
So when your child is pushing your buttons and you feel yourself ill-equipped to manage a difficult situation, take your power back. Remember that no one can make you upset without your permission – even a screaming toddler. Take a deep breath to calm yourself. Use those mirror neurons to teach your child to calm themselves. Keep breathing. You can handle this.