Mentalize This Understanding the Mind of Child

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					                    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 
                                               and why.
always  simple  and  that 
                                                                              poten al to be an excellent 
there can be a mixture of  
                                                                              foster parent. Yes, she is  
contradictory feelings. 
                                                                              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 
                                                        Listen non‐judgmentally. 
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. 
    their age 
                                                      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, 
                                                        and themselves.  
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.
for therapy: 
                                                      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.
you thought.”                                         
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,  

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