Mentalization & Reflective Parenting
Mentalizing is something we all do to some extent every day. It’s about understanding our own mental states and those of other people (our children!). These mental states include thoughts, feelings, beliefs, needs, desires etc.
It's about reading someone’s behavior and listening to their words, and then forming your own ideas on what they are feeling, doing, thinking….and you use this to interpret their intentions. This helps you decide how to act, or what to do in response.
You are mentalizing (being reflective) when:
You pay attention to what’s happening in your own mind
You wonder what’s happening in someone else’s mind
You’re curious as to why you behaved a certain way
You wonder why your child behaved a certain way
You think about your feelings
You think about your child’s feelings
Other ways to think about mentalizing:
“Seeing yourself from the outside and your child from the inside”
Mentalizing is something we do either automatically (without thinking) or on purpose (conscious)! But it always involves the imagination – because to mentalize, we have to imagine what the other person is feeling or thinking or what they believe. We can never really know what is inside the mind of another, so we have to imagine, wonder, guess etc.
Why should I improve my ability to mentalize?
As a baby, when your first relationships are developed with caregivers who can mentalize, that child has a greater chance of developing:
> High self-esteem
> Ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors
> Good mental and physical health
> Successful relationships with caregivers, teachers, peers and later, intimate partners
This is because when you can mentalize your child, you are helping them develop a solid sense of self, secure attachment and ability to cope with the world and other people!
Mentalizing is skill that develops as the result of a securely attached relationship. It is this trait in a caregiver that contributes to creating a strong secure attachment relationship with a child.
Additional benefits of being a good mentalizer (a reflective parent):
Helps your relationships become more fulfilling and rewarding
Increases intimacy and attachment
Helps positively influence your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors (as well as your own!)
Helps reduce behavior problems, fighting, conflict and resentments
If you, as a caregiver, did not have a secure and healthy attached relationship with your own caregivers, there is a chance you might not be as good at accurately and flexibly mentalizing as you could be. This is common with caregivers who have a history of trauma, abuse or neglect. Luckily, purposeful and conscious mentalizing skills can be taught and improved upon.
Dr. Peter Fonagy on
What is Mentalizing?
Peter Fonagy is a world renowned psychoanalyst and researcher who helped found the concept of mentalizing. He is CEO of the Anna Freud Centre in London and is a distinguished professor at University College London.
Dr. Jon Allen on What is Mentalizing and Why Do It?
Jon Allen is a senior staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic and specializes in treating trauma-related disorders and depression. A prolific writer and editor, he is the author of books on trauma, depression and mentalizing.