Holding The Mind In Mind: Mentalization and Relationship Health

Mentalization is a term that has been used in psychology since the late 1960’s. Mentalization is the ability to observe and communicate the mental state of oneself while imagining the mental state of others. The capacity to mentalize allows us to form and maintain healthy bonds to others. Through mentalizing we align our emotional state with those of others. This enables us to provide care while also feeling felt by those we love.

Mentalization, parenting, and relationships

We learn how to mentalize when our parents exhibit adequate levels of reflective function. Author and psychiatrist Dan Siegal states that reflective function occurs when “parents are able to reflect (using words) on the role of states of mind in influencing feelings, perceptions, intentions, beliefs, and behaviors.” Parental mentalization or reflective function promotes attachment security – the sense that others can be responsive to our needs.

For example, a parent with high reflective function might notice their child crying and comment, “I can tell you’re very upset right. I imagine it feels hard to have to wait until later to play with your toy.” In this example, the caregiver is taking time to imagine or mentalize the mental state of their child. Reflective function teaches children that others can be understanding of and responsive to their emotions.

Children of parents with high levels of reflective function will develop their own mentalization capacity. This will enable them to navigate social relationships later on in life. Children of parents with low levels of reflective function might struggle to achieve this developmental marker. These children may grow to feel and behave insecurely in relationships.

Intense emotions sometimes interfere with our ability to mentalize. This makes intuitive sense. If I am emotionally dysregulated – say, I’m very angry about a bad day at work – I might not take the time to imagine the mental states of others when I come home. Therefore, mentalizing requires that we imagine and regulate our mental state, as well. Parents who struggle with reflective function may benefit from individual therapy or couple’s counseling.

In my work with children and families, I am often told about the “big emotions” of children. I hear stories of tantrums, the inability to “hear no” or be told what to do, perfectionism, or defiant reactions to being assigned chores. I tell parents that while “big emotions” may be difficult to tolerate in the moment, they are also opportunities to practice mentalization and enhance reflective function.

Although responding to challenging behaviors with reflective function might require patience, the benefits are well established in the research literature. Sometimes this point brings up difficult feelings related to the childhood of the parent. Parents are often grappling with their relationships to their parents while raising their own children. This must always be acknowledged and incorporated into work with children and families.

I use the term coregulation to describe how emotional regulation takes place between two or more people. When parents respond to “big emotions” in a calm, considerate, and empathetic way, children will more easily become calm, considerate, and empathetic. Emotional attunement – whether between child and caregiver, friends, or adult partners – is a key factor in improving social and relational health.

In my work with adults, I observe the mentalizing capacity of my client and consider what this might reveal about their childhood or current relationship dynamics. Adults often seek therapy to address relationship concerns. Whether these concerns include relationship conflict, breakups, or challenging patterns, the significance of mentalization inevitably enters the room.

Nature, nurture, and mentalization

Throughout history, people have engaged in the nature versus nurture debate regarding human behavior. How do we make sense of behavioral problems seen in childhood and throughout the lifespan? “Nature” theories include genetic predispositions, neurological differences, and biochemical imbalances, while “nurture” theories include cultural differences, family dynamics, and traumatic experiences. In 2021, we know that human behavior is produced by the interdependence of nature and nurture factors.

Although mentalization may seem like a “nurture” factor in human behavior, we know it to involve both nature and nurture. Seigel explains that “caregivers are the architects of the way in which experience influences the unfolding of genetically preprogrammed but experience dependent brain development.” In other words, no matter what kind of genetic predispositions we may have been born with, life experience both activates and shapes the unfolding of genetic factors in personality and temperament.

Understanding the interdependence of nature and nurture in healthy psychological development can assist us in forming and maintaining fulfilling social, family, and romantic relationships. Without resigning ourselves to deterministic “nature” concepts of ourselves, we can grow and change in ways we never thought possible. We can become able to relate to others in new and meaningful ways.

The importance of mentalization

Mentalization can be understood as a crucial developmental marker at different stages of human growth. Karen Gilmore and Pamela Meersand explain that mentalization is “central to the regulation and organization of emotional life.” They describe the child’s ability to “reflect on mental life, connect interpersonal events with inner states, and predict people’s actions” as deeply implicated in attachment security between child and caregiver, as well as psychological health across the lifespan.

Gilmore and Meersand note that “enhanced mentalization capacities” in adolescence “facilitate a growing ability to interpret and reflect on complicated social and emotional behavior.” Adolescents who had parents with high reflective function exhibit a greater capacity for mentalization in the teenage years. This allows adolescents to meet the challenge of establishing more mature and reciprocal social relationships.

Siegal describes the “attuned state of mind” as one that is “manifested both in words and in the nonverbal aspects of communication: facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, bodily movement, intensity, and timing of responses.” Mentalization promotes what Siegal calls “the emotional resonance of feeling felt.” Whether I’m working with children, adolescents, or adults, tasks in therapy often involve building relationship security and emotional attunement between two or more people.

Reach out to learn more about parenting therapy.

Written by Luke Romano, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.

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Gilmore, K.J. and Meersand, P. (2014). Normal child and adolescent development: A psychodynamic primer. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Siegal, D.J. (2020). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, New York: Guilford Publications.

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