Mentalize This! Understanding the Mind of A Child
By Dr. Richard Delaney
It ’s 7 a.m. and you are running late. Your
ﬁrst grade foster child refuses to get
dressed for school. This isn’t like him
because he usually doesn’t drag his feet.
Thankfully, it ends well and he toddles oﬀ to the
bus…You feel pre y good about helping him
with his anxie es and you are pleased that you
resisted the tempta on to take his dawdling per‐
sonally. (Now all that remains is explaining to
You feel somewhat frustrated and maybe a bit
your boss that your late arrival at work was due
hurt that he is ac ng angry and deﬁant. (Hurt?
your need to “mentalize”
A er all, just minutes ago
with your child!)
you served him his
favorite strawberry What happened above
waffles! Where’s the was a “mee ng of minds.”
appreciation?) What this anecdote points
out is that awareness of
Gazing at your watch, you
what thoughts, feelings,
almost raise your voice to
needs, and inten ons are
him in sheer frustra on.
percola ng in your child
(You nearly blurted out,
can help you parent in a
“Listen, young man! Don’t be a brat! I don’t have
sensi ve way that puts your child’s mind in
Time for this!) But then, you stepped back a split
touch with yours and vice versa.
second and “mentalized.”
It’s called “mentalizing.” And it can work
Say what? You tried to understand what was
wonders. Even a beginning level of awareness
going on in your foster son’s mind.
on your part that there may be thoughts,
Immediately you wondered if his momentary feelings, needs, and inten ons hidden from
deﬁance relates to the missed visit with his view can help you to re‐direct your paren ng
sister the night before. (She lives in a different energies and, as in the case above, support your
foster home.) You know that your li le boy is child in a sensi ve and spot‐on fashion.
always hyper‐anxious about the welfare and
(By the way, I have known many foster and
whereabouts of his sister.
adop ve mothers and fathers that are talented
With that in mind, you side‐stepped a conﬂict in their ability to reﬂect on the mental states of
over the clothes issue and took a moment to themselves and their children at the same me!
hug and reassure your foster child. You reassured Some of them can even do this while driving in
him you will be checking with the caseworker heavy traﬃc!)
about se ng up another visit as soon as
possible, while you helped him e his shoes. Con nued on page 2
Mentalizing, con nued Page 2
Research over the last decade has zeroed in on I feel a li le sad to think that she could be afraid
the importance of understanding the “mind” of of me, but maybe with some me she’ll feel
the child. There is a speciﬁc parental trait that is safer. I wonder if she thinks that she has no right
highly related to secure attachment in children—i.e. to ask for what she wants.
Or maybe she thinks it’s strange that I’m asking
Wait, this is not a typographical error! These her what she wants. I feel a li le bit unsure
parents are called “mind‐minded,” aka about how to help her. I would love to hear from
“reﬂec ve” or “mentalizing,” because they have her what she is really thinking and feeling.
the ability to think about and be aware of their
On the one hand I think,
own thoughts and feel‐
ings and those of their I’m impressed that this “Maybe I should push her to
speak up.” But then I worry
children—and they can
foster mother shows that that she might feel I’m pu ng
do this simultaneously!
words in her mouth or forcing
Beyond that, these
she’s reflecting on her her to talk. I never liked that
reﬂec ve caregivers
child’s possible thoughts. when I was a kid.
think about feelings in
This foster mother, even
their children with a level In addition, she monitors
though she is struggling to ﬁnd
of ﬁnesse. They know
that feelings are not how she herself is feeling her way with a child, has got a
lot on the ball, a great deal of
always simple and that
poten al to be an excellent
there can be a mixture of
foster parent. Yes, she is
struggling. Yes, she has
Here’s how one foster mother tried to doubts. But she seems hungry and eager to
“mentalize” or “mind‐read.” A ﬁrst‐ me foster understand and to be aware of her child’s inner
mother described her nine‐year‐old foster world: her thoughts, feelings, and inten ons.
daughter this way:
What I’m impressed by is that this foster mother
I am a bit confused some mes by her and feel shows great strength in the area of reﬂec ng on
like maybe I’m missing something that I should her child’s possible thoughts and to make
be picking up on. reasonably precise interpreta ons about what
she is thinking. In addi on, she monitors how
But, my hunch is that she seems to think that she
she herself is feeling and why.
cannot ask for what she needs from me. She’ll
kind of beat around the bush and give me hints, The ability and desire to help children is
but if I encourage her to tell me more about, she increased if foster parents use their “reﬂec ve
falls silent and casts her eyes down. capacity” to make educated guesses about what
is going on in their children’s minds.
Con nued on page 3
Mentalizing, con nued Page 3
This is not for the purpose of outsmar ng unfair. But, he doesn’t say it. He can’t seem to
children but for helping them. get the words out.
A foster parent who can reﬂect a bit and read He just pouts, pulls away, gives me the cold
the child be er is in a posi on to help the child shoulder and then won’t tell me Goodnight.” He
feel understood and also might be thinking he is
help the child to punishing me in this silent,
understand that their distant way.
thoughts are important and
He is so diﬀerent from my
can be communicated to
older birth kids who
another human being.
rarely hold anything back
This can help a child develop from me. They say what
a more secure a achment. they think. They are an
It can also set the stage for open book.
teaching children to under‐
He is hard to read, and I
stand and organize their
don’t have much to go on. I
personal thoughts and ex‐
feel like he sort of hides his
press their feelings in
thoughts from me; I wonder
words rather than behav‐
if his thoughts are also
ior. To have your thoughts
hidden from himself. Like
and feelings understood
his feelings are a mystery to
and valued is a game changer.
him…So, I tell him, “Use your words.” But, I’m
Here’s how another foster parent tries to mind‐ not sure if that really encourages him to speak
read and also a empts to help her child sort out up or if he feels I’m forcing him to open up…
and express his own thoughts and feelings.
I wonder if anyone ever helped him and encour‐
Another foster mother talked about her six‐year‐
aged him to say what he felt when he was really
old foster son:
li le. I wonder if he ever felt understood. Some‐
Some mes I can see he gets a look in his eyes. one neglected to teach him about his insides.
This seems to happen when I tell him he has to
Unfortunately, many foster children have not
do something he doesn’t agree with, like brush
been shown a great deal of understanding prior
his teeth and go to bed.
to coming to live with you. They may have had
It’s like a thought passes through his mind for a no one to help them to think things though, to
split second, but the thought never comes out. I sort out feelings, and to vocalize them to others.
believe he gets upset when he thinks things are
Con nued on page 4
Mentalizing, con nued Page 4
This is par cularly true when children come from
Some Sugges ons
backgrounds of neglect, and neglect accounts
It is important for foster children to feel
for the bulk (60‐78%) of child maltreatment. The
someone values how they think and feel.
outcome for many neglected children is that
they develop insecure a achments, and along
A empt to bring out and iden fy the
with that they:
child’s underlying thoughts and feelings,
Struggle with understanding the thoughts for example: “Can you tell me what’s on
and feelings of others your mind? Help me to understand what
Have poor social skills and view many social you are thinking.”
interac ons as stressful Try to make the connec on between how
Poorly control emo ons or impulses and your child is ac ng and what the related
have frequent outbursts (but unspoken) feelings and thoughts are.
Act socially and emo onally immature for Listen with empathy and also pay a en on
to your own thoughts and feelings.
Foster parents need to keep their own
You see from the above list the emphasis on thoughts and feelings in mind, especially
feelings and thoughts. Neglected children o en when working with very diﬃcult children.
do not understand their own and others’ Most unwanted behavior from foster
thoughts, feelings, and inten ons. Their own children has an underlying message that
mental states and those of others are a mystery. needs to be decoded. Emo onally
tongue‐ ed, foster children o en let
How did these children develop this way? I have behavior do the talking for them.
met mothers and fathers who appear indiﬀerent Stay curious about and mo vated to be
or neglec ul to their children, though I don’t enlightened about how your children
think they want to be that way. think about life, rela onships, yourself,
It’s like they themselves have had to survive
Remain humble about how li le we can
over the years by shu ng themselves oﬀ from
really know for certain about another’s
their own feelings which have been quite painful.
thoughts and feelings. Beware of
In so doing, though, these parents may shut
concluding that you know “exactly” how
themselves oﬀ from all feelings, including those your child feels.
of their kids. Children who do not receive help from
Here’s an example of a birth mother I saw their foster and birth parents, are le to
sort out their own inner world alone.
Feeling understood can be a most reward‐
In a therapy session with birth mother and her ing feeling, yet some foster children ﬁnd a
three‐year‐old son, he kept coming up to her to foster parent’s interest in them somewhat
show her things, but she did not look at him or alien or even a bit threatening at ﬁrst.
Con nued on page 5
Mentalizing, con nued Page 5
what he brought. He was cha ering about trauma c backgrounds and who, at least at
something interes ng to him about the toy. the start of therapy, are rela vely insensi ve
to their children’s needs.
When I pointed out that he might want to share
his thoughts and excitement with her, she She has found that these mothers can deﬁnitely
seemed surprised. learn to improve how they respond to their
children. One way this is done is to point out and
When I added, “It’s so important for him to share
reﬂect upon how their child is ac ng relates to
his idea and feelings with you. He wants to
how he might be thinking or feeling at the moment.
connect with you and for you to understand
what he is thinking about and doing and feeling This is a very promising approach to helping
right now,” this mother seemed kind of shocked. birth parents, and I think that focusing on
reﬂec on and “mind reading” can help good
She reﬂected on her own past this way: “When I
foster parents become even be er resources to
was li le, we were supposed to be seen and not
their children. I feel very strongly that foster
heard. I was told: “Shut up! I don’t want to hear
children who have come from neglec ul
about it…I don’t care what you think.”
background will need the help of their foster
If I was upset about something, no one heard my and birth parents working together to teach
crying or, if they did, they might say, “You want them about the world of thoughts and feelings.
something to cry about, I’ll give you something
to cry about…Don’t be such a big baby.” Dr. Delaney is an interna onally acclaimed
clinical psychologist who works with foster,
I think I heard that from my mom a lot, and God
adop ve, and kinship care parents. Though he
bless her, I think she was raised that way too. So earned his Master's and Doctorate degrees, he
anyway, a er a while I just went into a shell and says his real educa on started when he began
shut down my feelings and kept my thoughts to working closely with foster and adop ve families
myself. around the country, and he uses the experiences
gained from them to share with others.
Therapist, “Maybe your li le son is feeling a bit
shut out right now? Maybe he is feeling like you Dr. Delaney is the author of numerous books on
challenges faced by foster and adop ve youth
did when your mom said she didn’t care what
and the adults who care for them.
The birth mom’s eyes teared up, and she called
her son to her side immediately. It was like a
light bulb went on.
Alicia Lieberman is a psychotherapist who
works with birth mothers (like the mother
above) who have come from very diﬃcult,