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Thinking Skills for Parents-Reflective Functioning

                                        “Don’t just do something. Stand there and listen.”
                                                                     ~Jeree Paul

“Reflective functioning” is a skill that everyone needs for lifelong learning, health and development.
It is especially necessary for parenting and school readiness. Do not get hung up on the term, which
comes from British psychology. Just think a moment about the words. To reflect is to think – especially
to think carefully and quietly. To function is to act. So reflective functioning refers to acting
thoughtfully – thinking about a person’s behavior and formulating an appropriate response, instead of
just reacting.

For example, when a parent with “good reflective functioning” hears Baby cry, s/he instinctively stops
and thinks: What is Baby telling me? Is he bored or over stimulated? How long since he ate? Is he wet,
hot, cold? Is he afraid? In pain? Is this his usual fussy time or is this out of the ordinary for him? How
do I want to respond?

Through this review of possibilities, a reflective parent thinks about the
event, in this example, Baby crying. She links to her own experience,
knowledge & feelings, and to Baby’s experience, knowledge and feelings
for possible explanations & solutions. Then she responds. That’s the 3-step
process for reflective functioning: Think, Link & Respond

Reflective functioning is a set of thinking skills at the core of
parenting and effective living. The skill set includes the ability to:

•   Observe my own behavior and feelings
•   See my role in a situation
•   See that others’ behaviors may not be directed at me
•   Recognize a need for information & obtain reliable information
•   Weigh options & form opinions
•   Make a plan and carry it out

We learn reflective functioning skills in toddlerhood by observing our parents. But if our parents and
caregivers are not reflective – if they are reactive – then we grow up reactive, too. If your clients did
not develop reflective functioning skills in childhood, you can give them another chance, starting in
pregnancy. During pregnancy a woman reflects on – thinks about – her own intense feelings: I cry one
minute & laugh the next. She links her feelings to her pregnancy: I know it’s because of the baby. She
links her feelings to what she knows and weighs options to feel better. I could smoke a cigarette. She
thinks of herself as this baby’s mother: I want my baby to be healthy. She links to information from
her home visitor: Smoking is not good for the baby or me. She reflects on other possibilities and
responds with an appropriate action. I’m not going to smoke now. I will call Mom. She is functioning

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