When we closely observe babies with their parents, we can see them mirroring their parents’ faces. Psychological tests have shown that babies will seek out a face and will hold their gaze on the face. If the parent screws up his or her face, the baby will do the same. If the parent smiles, so will the baby. The first smiles, often just hints of smiles, in the first weeks, are practice runs for that first big smile that comes spontaneously from the baby. It is triggered by the baby seeing a familiar face. Parents generally melt when it arrives spontaneously, for it is often the first sign that inside that crying baby who just seems to eat, excrete and cry is a feeling human being who takes pleasure from making a relationship with another human being.
It is in this way that the baby’s security is laid down. He will continue to mirror and imitate the close adults around him. He wants to be like them, to be part of the group. He is programmed to find delight in others, and to be the source of delight too, for that ensures his survival and well-being, in every sense of the word. As baby grows into the toddler and imaginative years, we can see in his play the mirroring still going on. Small children will play out their observations of the adult world. They will create shops and houses; they will become doctors, nurses and teachers; they will act out human qualities of leadership, co-operation, dependency and companionship.
What does this mean for parents of growing children? Many parents silently cringe or openly delight, depending on the content, when they hear their small child saying a phrase that clearly belongs to the parent. It is quite a responsibility to think that our children will mirror our actions, our words, our looks and even our moods. And that isn’t just the more positive attributes we have – they will also pick up our more negative ones. This is all part of the learning. They learn that sometimes adults will get cross or sad, but then they will hopefully also learn that adults can recover from these feelings, either with the help of others or by doing something relaxing etc. Moreover, children are very forgiving. They will not fall out of love with parents who suddenly shout or ignore – quite the opposite. Relationships laid down early are hard to destroy. So it is OK to make mistakes and is normal, but equally it can be very helpful to be mindful of the amount of imitation that is happening in children from the moment they are born.
As children grow, they naturally form more of a sense of their own agency. They don’t need to imitate and mirror the adults as much. In adolescence, they will appear to do the exact opposite to their parents. They can find their parents’ habits, that they once unthinkingly copied, intensely irritating. This is their way of making that separation into the adults they will become. It can be a worrying time as they might mirror the habits and behaviour of more troubled but perhaps also exciting adolescents. They can take on habits like smoking, swearing and drinking that they will undoubtedly grow out of, but it can be wearing at the time. It is vital for adolescents to be part of a group, and the same programming that made them as babies want to be part of the family group is still there in adolescence, but it is applied to being part of the peer group. Eventually they will become the people you thought you knew before, holding parts of their parents in who they are, but they will also have formed their own unique adult personalities, enriched by all the opportunities they have had to mirror and imitate and become part of the wider group to which they belong.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists