Reflections in the Mirror:
Mother-Child Interactions, Self-Awareness,
Paulina F. Kernberg, M.D.
Considerations about the development of the self and its relation to mother-child interaction have more than theoretical interest for me. In fact, this paper stems from some of my intuitive clinical interventions, which I later reexamined in the context of various theoretical propositions about the sequential development of self-awareness, its connection with mother‐ child interaction, and the child's reaction to its reflection in the mirror.
I begin with a clinical vignette, offer some preliminary assumptions, review some pertinent theoretical and research literature on the development of self-awareness and on self‐ recognition in the mirror, and finally, consider the implications of this material for clinical practice and research.
Derek, a five-and-a-half-year-old autistic child, was the youngest of three children. When I first saw him, he would no sooner enter the office than he would lie down on the floor —sometimes with his back to me, sometimes accidentally facing me, but always with his gaze averted. He had very little verbal communication. After a few weeks it dawned on me that perhaps, I, too, should lie on the floor and do exactly what he was doing. If he twirled around in the chair, I did the same; if he stopped, I followed suit. When he fleetingly glanced in a vacuous way at my face, I promptly returned his gaze. After twelve sessions (he came three times a week) Derek started to acknowledge my presence and looked at me with more interest, interrupting his repetitive activity for a few seconds to do so. He even began to play while sitting or standing. When we had mutual eye contact, I introduced more complexity into our interactions, moving from strictly parallel, mirrorlike feedback to a more sequential, reciprocal exchange. With this came his beginning awareness of myself and himself.
Derek's behavior when confronted by his actual mirror image also underwent a transformation. Early in the therapy he would look blankly at the mirror, giving it a fleeting glance with no recognition behavior. After a few months, avoidance behavior—rubbing his eyes, a faint smile of embarrassment—became