The Importance of Mentalization and Reflective Parenting

The Importance of Mentalization and Reflective Parenting

Mentalization is a term clinicians and researchers use to describe the process by which parents can reflect on their child’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and then communicate these feelings back to their child. It is a process we all engage in, and one that relies on our ability to use imagination, empathy, and communication to work effectively. It also requires the parent to reflect on their emotional states and own history to ensure that they can effectively sort out what their child is thinking and feeling, and what the parent is thinking and feeling.

The ability of a parent to mentalize their child is invaluable at all stages of a child’s development, as the ability of the parent to understand and communicate with the child about their inner life is crucial in helping them develop stronger attachments, better interpersonal relationships, and have been found to help a child engage in their own social and emotional thinking.

For example, when a child seems to be withdrawn, staying in their room, and not engaging with the family, a parent might think any of the following:

1. “Is my kid angry at me?”
2. “Are they being disrespectful to me and the family?”
3. “Are they sad because of something happening at school?”
4. “Are they depressed?”
5. “Are they trying to get some more independence from the family?”

These kinds of thoughts are all examples of mentalizing. A parent who has strong mentalization abilities may also be able to recognize that perhaps their own emotions may be affecting their ability to understand what is going on. Perhaps the parent who thought example number 2 here may realize that since they grew up in a family where not wanting to be around your parents was considered rude or inappropriate, they may be projecting their own feelings onto the child. Good mentalization is not just about knowing your kid, it is about knowing yourself.
This is the tricky bit about mentalization, and this skill is not always easy. In fact, there have been forms of mentalization-based therapy and parent training that have been developed to help both children and parents learn this invaluable, and often difficult skill. There are also some skills that parents can regularly practice to help improve their mentalization abilities in their everyday life. Below is a valuable way parents can practice mentalization in their everyday life. This skill was adapted from the useful book, Reflective Parenting: A Guide to Understanding What’s Going on in Your Child’s Mind, by Alistair Cooper and Sheila Redfern

Mentalizing using parenting APP

In their book, Cooper and Redfern describe the acronym of APP, or Attention, Perspective Taking, and Providing Empathy, to help parents learn how to mentalize more effectively.

The first step is to learn how to pay Attention to your child in an intentional and curious way. Try and notice what exactly it is your child is doing objectively. What is the exact behavior they are displaying? what is their body language like? What did they exactly say? Try and avoid shorthand labels, such as ‘procrastinating,’ or ‘being hyper.’ Instead try and break it down into specifics. Then, try and ask yourself why they may be doing this, and try and come up with possible reasons. Are they crying because they are hungry? Are they scared? Do they feel lonely? Imagine you are a detective, coming up with as many theories as you can as to why your child is doing or feeling? Afterwards, you may also try and express this curiosity with your child.Gently ask them about why they are doing what they are doing, or why they feel that way.

Next comes Perspective Taking, where we try and not only imagine ourselves in our child’s position, but we try and share this with our child. By communicating how we see it from their perspective, we can reflect back the child’s feelings, and also help model social skills with your children. This can be awfully difficult though, as many parents might forget what it is like to be three years old and in the middle of a temper tantrum.

Or perhaps they may not know what it is like to be a teenager who is being bullied on social media because they never experienced that themselves. Perhaps in an upsetting moment, a parent can only be thinking ‘can’t they see how this is upsetting me?’ however, it is truly possible that the child cannot see that. By perspective-taking, we try and put our own feelings aside, and try and grasp what it is your child is feeling. When you find yourself flummoxed, annoyed, or worried about your child, try putting yourself in their shoes, see if you can understand their own thoughts and motivations. From there, you can then better understand how to communicate with them, as well as to provide support to them.

Last is Providing Empathy. Although similar to perspective taking, the biggest difference is that while perspective taking involves you acknowledging that your child’s view on events is different than your own, empathy centers your emotional reaction to this different perspective. In other words, it is allowing yourself to experience the emotions that come with a different perspective. If your child is withdrawing from the family, what feelings might arise in you if you put yourself in your child’s shoes and realize it might be because they are trying to be more independent? Although you might feel sad, could your child be feeling excited, or perhaps nervous, or even ambivalent about this? Imagine being able to then communicate to your child that you understand how they feel, and where that conversation could lead. Empathy can be an important role in both understanding your child, but also communicating with them constructively.

Mentalization can be difficult work. The Parenting APP is just one tool devised among many to help parents practice this crucial skill. If interested in learning more about the APP, you can learn more in chapter 4 of Reflective Parenting: A Guide to Understanding What’s Going on in Your Child’s Mind, by Alistair Cooper, Sheila Redfern.


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