I recently attended a conference in Napa for therapists and early childhood workers of all ilks with the internationally known psychoanalyst and researcher Peter Fonagy. The topic of the conference was the concept of 'Mentalization,' or the abilty to 'keep the child's mind in mind.' This is the ability to take the child's thoughts, desires, intentions ... (his or her mental states) in mind, while engaging with the child. This abiltity allows for a 'reflective' stance, rather than a 'reactive' stance towards the child's behavior. The 'mentalizing' parent knows that underlying the behavior of the child are certain thoughts, motivations...
Especially the parents' ability to 'mentalize' with their young children between the ages of 6 to 18 months is crucial for helping the child develop a healthy and secure attachment, and to help prevent later psychological disorder. This is an important finding with a lot of practical implications for early childhood workers and parents alike, that was known for more than 75 years by psychoanalysts, but is currently robustly confirmed by contemporary research. It goes against the harmful assumption that 6 months to 18 months old children's thoughts, intentions... should not be taking into account as they are 'too young to understand,' or as they do not even have them.
A parent who is able to keep the infant's mind in mind, and to see the child's mind as separate from his or her own will be in a better position to help regulate the child, and to help nurture the child into a secure relation towards the world and the broader social environment.
Fonagy gave an example of the different reactions of two mothers to an 'unhappy' or 'fussy' child. One mother, who sees her unhappy child, still feels happy herself to see the child, and is able to sooth the child by mirroring to her child, talking to it. This mother experiences her child's mind as separate from hers, and she is able to help the child regulate. She does not feel threatened by her child negative feelings. The other mother, responds to her child's unhappiness with sadness. She might experience it as if the child does not like her, as if she is not a good mother, as a rejection. She gets 'caught up' in the child's emotions, and the child sees the sadness in the mother, and is not able to use the mother to regulate his own negative feelings, to 'make sense' of it. This can lead to a cycle or decreased mentalization, with as effect that the relationship between child and parent 'sours' and that the 'connection' is undermined.
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