Latest Research in Using Mentalization to Help Families

Latest Research in MentalizationCheck out these short research summaries from other experts in the field + learn their implications for practice!

Mentalizing mediates the association between emotional abuse in childhood and potential for aggression in non-clinical adults (2019)

Schwarzer, N.; Nolte, T.; Fonagy, P.; & Gingelmaier, S.

Children who undergo emotional abuse are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior as adolescents and adults. Recent research suggests that mentalizing—or the ability to consider internal mental states—could mitigate the impact of emotional abuse on adolescents’ potential for aggression.

A breadth of past research has explored the utility of a mentalization-based approach to violence. Previous findings showed a link between adverse childhood experiences and low mentalizing capacity, as well as evidence of mentalizing mediating the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and aggressive behavior in adulthood. In the current study, researchers sought to determine whether mentalizing could reduce aggressive behaviors in adults who experienced emotional abuse during childhood.

Researchers collected data from a random sample of students at a university in southern Germany, with 214 total participants. Abuse in childhood was measured with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire and aggressive behavior was measured with the German Questionnaire to assess Factors of Aggressiveness. The Reflective Functioning Questionnaire was used to assess participants’ mentalizing, with a focus on measuring certainty about mental states—i.e., whether participants consider and understand other people’s thoughts and behaviors.

Researchers found that a history of childhood emotional abuse had a direct positive influence on participants’ aggressive behavior in adulthood. Results further suggested that certainty about mental states mitigated the negative effect of emotional abuse and mediated the associations between emotional abuse and aggressive behavior in adulthood. These findings align with clinical studies and underscore the idea that attempting to understand one’s own behavior and the behaviors of others can inhibit violent behavior.

Minding the Baby®: Enhancing parental reflective functioning and infant attachment in an attachment-based, interdisciplinary home visiting program (2019)

Slade, A.; Holland, M. L.; Ordway, M. R.; Carlson, E. A.; Jeon, S.; Close, N.; Mayes, L. C.; & Sadler, L. S.

Early experiences of chronic stress can result in lifetime negative health effects. For children with high rates of adverse childhood experiences, developing resilience and secure attachment can be the key to mitigating these harmful consequences and fostering positive social, emotional, and cognitive developmental outcomes. Research shows that high quality caregiving and early interventions are crucial to promoting children’s resilience and secure attachment relationships.

In this study, researchers explored the effects of an interdisciplinary reflective parenting intervention called Minding the Baby. Operating with the understanding that home visiting is a primary method of preventing adverse childhood experiences, Minding the Baby provides intensive home visiting services from a nurse and social worker team for 27 months, from pregnancy to the child’s second birthday.

Minding the Baby attempts to resolve the impact of adverse experiences and support the development of strong mother-infant attachment relationships by improving two factors positively associated with secure attachment in infancy. Past research has connected both maternal reflective functioning—or the ability of a mother to reflect on and understand their child’s thoughts and feelings—and affective communication between mother and child with secure infant attachment.

This study sought to assess the effects of the Minding the Baby intervention on improving mothers’ levels of reflective functioning and affective communication, as well as on creating more secure mother-child attachment relationships and having a positive impact on maternal depression and PTSD. Researchers collected data from 156 young first-time mothers who lived in underserved, poor urban communities. One group of mothers received the Minding the Baby intervention, while the control group participants received routine health visits, well-baby health care visits, and materials about child health and development.

Although the study revealed no significant differences in affective communication or depression and PTSD symptoms between the groups, researchers found that Minding the Baby participants were more likely to have higher rates of maternal reflective functioning and more secure attachments with their children. Results suggested that staging interventions across infancy and toddlerhood helps ensure long-term positive effects for both mothers and children. Ultimately, the Minding the Baby intervention shows promising evidence that mentalization can prevent the intergenerational transmission of insecure attachment and disrupted relationships.

Effects of maternal mentalization-related parenting on toddlers’ self-regulation (2018)

Senehi, N.; Brophy-Herb, H. E.; & Vallotton, C. D

Children who grow up in low-income households are at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes. Research suggests that resiliency and self-regulation can counteract these negative health impacts, and that parents can facilitate children’s self-regulatory development through mindful parenting practices.

Previous studies explored the link between mentalizing parents—or parents who consider their children’s internal mental states—and children’s attachment security, and considered mentalization-related parenting behaviors individually. In this study, researchers examined the potential for parental mentalization to improve children’s self-regulation. The study also sought to create a construct for examining mentalization-related parenting behaviors as they occur together.

Researchers collected data for 95 mother-child dyads from low-income families enrolled in Early Head Start programs across three sites. Toddlers’ self-regulation was assessed through toddlers’ coping behaviors, effortful control, and delay of gratification. Three mentalization-related parenting behaviors were studied:

  1. Maternal use of mental state words

  2. Use of emotion bridging, or linking emotions and behaviors in child and others

  3. Representational mind-mindedness, or mothers’ tendencies to describe their children in terms of mental states

Researchers assessed toddlers’ self-regulation and mothers’ mentalization-related parenting behaviors via observation of a book share task, Early Head Start home visitor assessments of toddlers’ coping behaviors, parental ratings of toddlers’ effortful control, and direct assessment of toddlers’ delay of gratification.

Ultimately, results suggested that the three mentalization-related parenting behaviors assessed in the study helped promote toddlers’ self-regulation six months later. Researchers noted that the maternal use of mental state words helps young children internalize an understanding of themselves and others, while emotion bridging supports their recognition of emotions and scaffolds their attention. Mentalization-related parenting behaviors also create more opportunities for toddlers to identify, organize, and regulate their own mental states. In tandem, these mentalizing behaviors build skills supporting toddlers’ self-regulation.