Reflecting Versus Reacting

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

Imagine with me for a moment that you have just arrived home from a party.

“Honey, I’m so hungry, do we have anything good to eat?” you ask your spouse.

“Hungry!” Spouse exclaims, “How could you possibly be hungry; you ate tons of food at the party!”

Or, how about this scenario:

“Sweetheart,” you begin as you turn towards your spouse to express yourself, “I’m really very hot. Would you lower the thermostat please?”

“Hot!” Spouse practically shouts, “I’ll tell you what hot is- go outside in the sun, then you’ll feel hot! When you come back inside, you’ll realize that it’s very comfortable in here.”


Well, how did you feel about that? Did you feel understood? Did you feel that your feelings had been taken into account in a meaningful way? Or, were you left wondering whether your emotions were actually real? Perhaps you were not actually hungry? Could it be that the heat was simply a figment of your imagination? Or, did you wonder whether your spouse could begin to understand you after all?


Misunderstandings are common between parents and children lacking these essential skills.

Imagine traveling in the mini-van with your daughter. “I’m hungry!” she whines during a long stretch of the highway.

“You are not hungry, darling,” You respond to your daughter, “you just ate dinner.”

Daughter has two choices right now:

Choice #1: Believe Parent; if my parent says that I’m not hungry, then that must be the fact. The rumbling in my belly must be my imagination. Unconsciously, the thought process will travel even further: My feelings may not be real. I’ve got to check with my parents to see if my feelings are truly accurate. I am not capable of trusting my own intuition and emotions.

Choice #2: Not believe Parent; if my parent says that I’m not hungry, that means he/she does not know what he is talking about! My own feelings will guide me to knowledge of the truth. Unconsciously, the thought process will travel down a road that looks like this: My parent does not understand me at all. He/she has no idea who I am or what I am feeling.


I recall speaking with two different friends recently on a day that I was suffering from stomach problems.

Friend A said to me, “Why don’t you try this pill or that pill?”

Friend B empathized with, “Oh, Ellen, it’s so hard to get anything done when your stomach is out of sorts… it’s as though the whole you is out of sorts, but your mind is working fine and you want to do things, you just feel like you’re weighed down.”

Obviously, Friend A meant well. However, it was Friend B who reflected my feelings that made me feel comforted.


Effective communication is a learned skill.

Like learning a new language, switching gears from reacting to your children’s expressions to the new method of reflecting their inner feelings, will take a bit of time. In the beginning, you may feel awkward with this manner of conversation, yet over time, it will become a natural and habitual way of response.


When a child hears his emotions reflected back to him, he is able to accept, trust, and respect his own feelings. That is the essence of confidence. When a child has the ability to base ideas and decisions upon his thoughts and feelings, he is self-aware and possesses a healthy level of self-esteem.

Here is an example of reactionary as well as reflective parental behavior:


Scene I- Reacting: Susie came home from school with a watercolor painting. “Wow, this is beautiful,” Mom gushed, “really spectacular; you’re a wonderful artist.”

A quick peak into Susie’s mind will yield this train of thought: “Am I really an artist? What about all those times that my paintings didn’t come out so nice? How do I know that I can keep on painting so well? What will Mom say if my next painting is not this pretty?”

Scene II- Reflecting: Susie came home from school with a watercolor painting. “I like the colors you chose,” Mom said. “The bright red and green make me feel like getting a juicy fruit for a snack right now.”

A quick peak into Susie’s mind will yield the following: “Wow, Mom really thinks my fruits look real, she even got hungry looking at my painting. I can actually paint an object and make it look appealing. Next time I’m going to try painting cookies. Or bread with jam. Or perhaps flowers.”


How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

P.S.  Reflecting rather than reacting is a learned skill. How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is an invaluable, easy-to-read handbook to guide you along this wonderful journey.  Buy it now; your children and grandchildren will thank you!

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  1. We should try this with our husbands…. they need to know we care too!

  2. loved the reflecting article, looking forward to more reminders on this subject!

  3. Great article.

  4. Victoria says:

    Excellent advice regarding the painting — over-praising does NOT help a child develop an inner sense of confidence. However, praising, appropriately, things that truly are praiseworthy makes the praise worthwhile — and also, by the way, enhances the analytical skills of the child. How to look at a painting, ways of appreciating it, etc…

    loved this article.

  5. Kirstin says:

    A great reminder – thank you! I am familar with the technique but do need to be reminded from time to time as it’s easy to forget.

  6. I am new to this site (about 1 week)and can already tell a difference in my parenting.

  7. Aardy Willow says:

    Thank you Ellen for a reminder about validating feelings. How else can we learn to be in touch with what we think and feel. How else do we learn to believe in ourselves. I’m a teacher and a parent and in the mileu of a busy classroom or hurried (harried??) homelife it is easy to overlook and forget to validate what kids are thinking and feeling. I think you have hit the heart of why kids act out in unacceptable ways!

  8. A great book that teaches this technique is “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” It would be a great mom’s group discussion book.

  9. i love this article! i just tried it with my 9yr.old,and we decided to try painting different things together! Thanks!!!!

  10. This is so true, and the need to respond in this way doesn’t stop when they get older – in fact, it may be even more important to do this with your young adult children, particularly when you did not validate their feelings correctly when they were younger.

    Sadly, I am finding this out now because when my children were small, I was invariably the person in the “reactive” examples.

  11. This is a helpful technique[sp] to use with anyone . . . It is one of those thought processes that needs to be ”learned” over and over again.

  12. Ad? There was an ad? I didn’t even notice. Article was great…i really needed this reminder. Thanks for another great article!

  13. Reflect vs. react language is very in synch with another model called “Compassionate Communication” or “Nonviolent Communication” which I’ve been “practicing” for about 3 years. It has made a tremendous difference in my relationships with my kids, my husband, my in-laws, even the clerk in the check-out line. When we learn to reflect rather than react we can be proactive in developing relationships that nurture each other. We’re also more likely to speak in a way that’s easier for others to meet our needs with joy.

  14. My mother-in-law sent me the link to this site just this week. This is the first article I have had the pleasure of reading, and as a new parent I will be looking forward to my newsletters from now on.

  15. See, I’m one of those people to whom this doesn’t make any sense. If I tell people I have xyz problem, it is because I want a solution. Solutions, to me, are comforting. If my child says “I’m hungry”, I’ll say “eat something.” If I say “I’m having stomach problems”, I want the solution, not someone telling me how hard it must be. If my son draws a nice picture, I’ll tell him I like it and why.

    Maybe I’m just not “feely.”

  16. I’m new also to this. This article is a “heart opener”. Can we repair damage we may have done by not speaking this way? This is sooo good. Thank you. I will be needing grace to make this a habit.
    Thank you Sherri for the advice to remember to “reflect rather than react”, that is helpful.

  17. Can you tell me what you say to a child who claims to be hungry just after eating dinner? I am good at reflecting, but this has a twist.

  18. Shannon says:

    This is my first article too! I am grateful, as my daughter is on her 3rd (?) time-out today and I also need a time out! (She’s back, times up, let’s see if I can finish this…can anyone relate???)
    I want to be less reactive, and as much training as I have had, (I was a middle school teacher 8 years, and now am a certified life coach) my brain seems to turn to MUSH around her when we get stressed out. I have many skills, and am fairly consistent with my reactions, (I usually use love and logic and 1,2,3 Magic). I just can’t believe that we’re still doing time-outs at 5! She struggles so! She starts Kindergarten this year, and I would really like to feel better about my parenting strategies. I feel too old for this! I look forward to more articles and support. Thanks!

  19. Schneur says:

    You wrote:
    I recall speaking with two different friends recently on a day that I was suffering from stomach problems.
    Friend A said to me, “Why don’t you try this pill or that pill?”
    Friend B empathized with, “Oh, Ellen, it’s so hard to get anything done when your stomach is out of sorts… it’s as though the whole you is out of sorts, but your mind is working fine and you want to do things, you just feel like you’re weighed down.”
    Obviously, Friend A meant well. However, it was Friend B who reflected my feelings that made me feel comforted.
    This is clearly a Man vs. Woman scenario (generally speaking). While men want solutions, women want sympathy. For the same reason, men will offer advice on how to solve an issue, whereas women will sympathize.

    As Maries wrote, the example of the hungry child has nothing to do with the example of the painting. Whereas in the former there was a problem that could have either been solved/dealt with, or one can sympathize with it. While the mother doesn’t have to respond with “You just ate supper”, sympathizing with the hungry child is futile.

    When a child brings home a nice (or even not so nice) painting from school, all you have to do is praise the painting, “Very nice painting”, with out all of the spin. Praise the deed, not the person.

  20. Shannon, you are way too hard on yourself. Parenthood is just hard, hard, hard and provides endless opportunities for us to perform less competently than we’d like. Take a breath, see if the situation offers a clue that might leave you feeling more prepared next time and go on to the next blunder. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too old but I know there’s such things as exhaustion and frustration. Feeling at the end of your rope doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. I found with my daughter, whose personality is very different from mine (I am 52 and she is 11) that the good times and bad times are somewhat cyclical.

    I recall now thinking that it wasn’t until about she was about 4 or 5 that I had any indication that she ever heard a thing I said. Hang in there!!!!

  21. Wow! Thanks for this. I am really going to pause before I reply to something my girls say to me that I don’t fully understand.
    Very helpful.

  22. I really appreciated this article. Although my son is nearly 24, he often makes statements that provoke me to react, rather than to reflect. This article was a great reminder to me!

    I’d also like to respond briefly to Schneur, who stated that “women want sympathy.” I know this takes us to a different topic, but I don’t agree with Schneur. Sympathy basically says “poor you,” which is not all that helpful. Empathy, however, brings us compassion and often fosters
    intimacy in our relationships. And when we’re receiving empathy and compassion, we often will seek solutions from others, since we’ve built a trusting relationship. Although women and men have their differences, I think men appreciate empathy and compassion, too, as well as
    solutions! Whether it’s in our adult relationships or our relationships with our children (the little ones and the grown-up ones!), we want to remember that not everyone will remember what we said or did, but everyone will remember how we made them feel. And I guess this brings me back to the original topic – we need to remember that we are responsible for not reacting to our children or
    others, for that matter….it is difficult living a life in a human body on this planet…we owe our children the benefit of our self-restraint and wisdom.

    Sorry for the long-winded response. I love “Raising Small Souls” – it serves as a thought-provoking reminder to remember who we are and to encourage us to guide our children appropriately.

  23. I have to write to Shannon. I have a 5 year old, and he goes on time out occasionally. I find when my 5yo is going on time out an awful lot, then he is usually tired, hungry, stressed or bored. I usually ask him if he is hungry, and he will tell me yes or no. The tired, I kinda have to figure out myself. He has a certain look to him when he is tired. I think only mothers know that look. LOL If he is stressed, we relax, take a bath with lavendar oil, and read a book, if he is bored, I play with him. It works. He’s a good boy.

    I do have to say, that I did not see the add. And, that I ABSOLUTELY LOVED this article. This is one of the best articles yet!


  24. Caroline says:


    I didn’t see the ad either, what was it for?

    So what DO you do with the ‘I’m hungry’ after dinner? I often get this one. Does it mean I’ve not fed her enough? Or is she really asking for sweets? Is the answer to this one, ask questions and find out what she really wants – its not food, its sweets, or cuddles or attention?


  25. Personally, I offer them apples, bananas, celery or carrots etc… I do NOT give them sweets. LOL I learned this a long time ago. If they are truly hungry, then they will eat the fruit or veggies, but if they don’t eat it, then they aren’t really hungry and are just wanting to graze on something sweet.

    If you are in the mood to make a dessert, do so; and let everyone have some, but I wouldn’t cater to a child who will skip his/her dinner and go for the treat afterwards. It isn’t healthy.

    Unfortunately, I see parents do this all the time, and I think it contributes to the health problems in our country. Healthy food is always best.