Entropy Rules

Reflective Functioning:

Awareness Of Mind Body Wellness Behavior

    Reflective functioning (RF), also called mind-mindedness (e.g., Siegel, 2011), refers to a parent's ability to reflect on their and their child's mental and emotional states and draw connections between these states and behavior. Several types of RF capacities have been identified including awareness of the nature of mental states, attempts to understand mental states as they relate to behavior, and the recognition of the impact of developmental stage on aspects of mental states (Stacks et al., 2014). RF involves the parent's ability or inability to understand the intentions underlying their child's behavior (e.g., attachment-related intentions such as restoring connection with the parent or meeting a need). A parent's ability to understand the developing mind of their child informs interactions which in turn groom the developing child's own self-concept, understanding, and mind-mindedness (Fonagy, Target, Gergely, & Jurist, 2002; Slade, 2002). Without an appreciation for intentions underlying child behavior, parental behavior can unwittingly become antagonistic, withdrawn, intrusive, or role-reversing at times when accurate empathy and adequate responsivity are called for (Kelly et al., 2005; Lyons-Ruth et al., 1999). Another crucial aspect of RF is the parent's ability to distinguish accurately between their own internal experiences and those of the child. In this way a parent varies in their capacity to distinguish inner and outer reality and intrapersonal needs and reactions from interpersonal processes (Fonagy, Target, Steele, & Steele, 1998). When this capacity is lacking, the likelihood of a misattuned response to the child's distress is more likely. Additionally, the ability to reflect on mental states is crucial for effectively regulating negative affect through meaning-making and problem-solving based on an understanding that mental states are temporary, changeable experiences (Fonagy, 1996/2000; Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Leigh, Kennedy, & Mattoon, 1995; Fonagy et al., 2002).
    RF allows parents to respond in a sensitive and appropriate manner to their child's cues, especially affectively laden cues, because it allows parents to step back from their own emotional reactions and reflect on their child's state of mind (Fonagy et al., 2002; Rosenblum, McDonough, Sameroff, & Muzik, 2008). Parents who have a well-developed RF capacity are more aware of their own emotions and others emotions and how these emotions influence behavior and other aspects of emotional functioning. They understand the impact of their own and others intentions and appreciate that feelings and goals are not always clear (Slade, 2005).
    Reflective functioning is another variable that could further contribute to the parenting problems in adult survivors of child maltreatment. Kelly and colleagues (2005) found maternal RF to be inversely related to "atypical" (i.e., withdrawn, intrusive, affectively inaccurate, ineffective) behaviors. Higher levels of these behaviors were linked to disorganized and resistant infant attachment styles, and this association was mediated by maternal RF (Kelly et al., 2005). Stacks et al. (2014) also examined reflective functioning, parenting, and demographic risk in a socioeconomically diverse sample of women with and without a history of child maltreatment. They found RF was inversely related to demographic risk and parenting negativity. However, RF was not directly associated with maltreatment or PTSD in this sample. Nonetheless, RF did predict parenting sensitivity and secure attachment.
    In general, positive associations have been demonstrated between RF and parenting sensitivity and attachment security. In a small clinical sample of mothers and children, Schecter et al. (2008) found RF was not associated with atypical behavior or PTSD, but was linked to the way mothers thought about their children and responded to intervention. Suchman et al. (2008) also found improvements in RF were associated with improvements in parenting. Specifically, self-focused RF (such as that which may be associated with mindfulness practice) was associated with maternal sensitivity and to interactions that fostered social-emotional and cognitive growth. Lower RF has been associated with attachment insecurity and shown to be mediated by parenting negativity (Stacks et al., 2014; Fonagy et al., 1991; Slade, 2007; Steele & Steele, 2008; Suchman et al., 2008; Suchman, DeCoste, & Mayes, 2009; Kelly, Slade, & Grienenberger et al., 2005).
    In summary, the effects of child maltreatment can lead to impulsive, dysregulated, and aggressive parenting tendencies (e.g., Bailey et al., 2007). These tendencies may become more pronounced during parenting given the ecophorous nature of child distress cues and their own explicit and implicit memories of traumatic maltreatment involving similar stimuli (e.g., Siegel, 2012; Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Such cues can trigger dysregulated states characterized by aggression and/or disengagement, leading to further acts of maltreatment. However, parenting behaviors are not the sole factor determining attachment disorganization. Compromised RF capacities are also thought to be influential in contributing to attachment security directly and indirectly to insecure and disorganized attachment (e.g., Kelly et al., 2005, Stacks et al., 2014). However, the few studies that have investigated maltreatment history and RF (e.g., Stacks et al. 2014) have found that the two factors were not directly related but rather influence parenting behavior in ways that increase risk of child maltreatment. Perhaps most importantly for the current thesis, RF appears to be related to the way mothers think about their children and respond to parenting interventions (Schecter et al., 2008).


⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.

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