The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Rethinking Sensitivity

What does it mean to be a 'sensitive' parent?

A couple of posts on this blog have described our lab’s work on parents’ mind-mindedness—their ability to ‘tune in’ to their babies’ thoughts and feelings—and its positive impact on children’s development. One question we often get is: You say you’re describing a mind-minded parent, but aren’t you just describing a sensitive one?

Sensitivity has been a critical concept in this kind of research ever since it was defined by Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues in the early 1970s. It’s timely to discuss differences between sensitivity and mind-mindedness because 2013 marks the centenary of Ainsworth’s birth. Ainsworth is most famous for developing a simple procedure for assessing attachment (the strange situation), but her work characterizing the quality of mother–baby interaction in the first year of life, based on painstaking home-based observation, is an equally impressive achievement.

Mary Ainsworth

The first point to make is that sensitivity is about more than just responding promptly to the baby’s cues. Ainsworth and her colleagues saw the sensitive mother as “capable of perceiving things from [the child’s] point of view” [1], whereas the insensitive mother tries to “socialize with the baby when he is hungry, play with him when he is tired, and feed him when he is trying to initiate social interaction” [2]. The downside is that Ainsworth’s own scale to measure sensitivity was not precise in its operationalization, giving only a brief narrative description of caregivers defined (on one of five points of a global scale) as ‘highly insensitive’, ‘insensitive’, ‘inconsistently sensitive’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘highly sensitive’. Because the exact types of behavior indicating sensitivity were not defined, Ainsworth and colleagues’ original emphasis on the appropriateness of the parent’s response has often been lost in subsequent research on sensitivity.

Sensitivity assesses caregivers’ behavior when interacting with their babies, whereas mind-mindedness focuses on how the caregiver thinks about the baby. To be more precise, the most useful operationalization of mind-mindedness sees it as caregivers’ tendency to talk in an attuned manner about what their babies are thinking or feeling. As we argued in a recent paper [3], looking only at behavioral responses to the baby’s cues can lead to misinterpretations, whereas focusing on what caregivers say gives you a more accurate picture of whether they are tuning in to their babies’ thoughts and feelings.

Take the example of a mother withdrawing a toy when her young baby calmly turns away from it. If we look only at the mother’s behavior, we would assume that she was behaving sensitively in withdrawing the toy when the infant disengaged from it. But if we also listen to what the mother says during this interaction, her response might be interpreted differently.

Imagine if the mother said, “Oh, that really scared you” or “You just don’t like playing with me, do you?” as she withdrew the toy. In both cases, you’d get the impression that the mom had misinterpreted what was going on for the baby. In contrast, if the mother had commented that the baby didn’t like the toy, or wasn’t interested in it, that would seem to be an appropriate interpretation of her baby’s experience. In our coding scheme, the former type of comment is termed non-attuned, while the latter type is termed appropriate. This is the crucial point: the same seemingly sensitive behavioral response can indicate either appropriate attunement to, or a misinterpretation of, the baby’s thoughts and feelings. Assessing mind-mindedness gives researchers a handle on whether caregivers’ responses are driven by accurate or inaccurate interpretations of their babies’ experiences, and many researchers think it's truer to the spirit of Ainsworth's writings than more global measures of 'sensitivity'. 

So what can we do to make ourselves more mind-minded as parents? The good news is that many of us already talk to our babies about what might be going on inside their heads. But don’t worry about doing anything special to train yourself to become mind-minded—the best way to learn about what your baby might be thinking or feeling is to watch them closely. Does your baby like being held in a certain way or seem interested in a particular toy? If you know the answer to these questions, then you’re already able to read what your child is thinking and feeling—all you need to do now is to talk about those likes and interests out loud. And don’t worry if you get it wrong sometimes, because you wouldn’t recognize that you’d misread your baby’s experiences if you weren’t trying to tune in to their thoughts and feelings! There are some feelings, though, that babies never have: they never do things to be spiteful, mean or annoying—if they’re fussing, it’s because there’s something not quite right.

In the next post, I’ll describe our recent findings on how different profiles of maternal mind-mindedness can actually predict what kind of attachment security the baby will show.

 

[1] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., & Stayton, D. J. (1971). Individual differences in Strange Situation behavior of one year olds. In H. R. Schaffer (Ed.), The origins of human social relations (pp. 17-52). New York: Academic Press. Quotation from p. 43. 

[2] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., & Stayton, D. J. (1974). Infant–mother attachment and social development: Socialisation as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals. In M. P. M. Richards (Ed.), The introduction of the child into a social world (pp. 99-135). London: Cambridge University Press. Quotation from p. 129. 

[3] Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., de Rosnay, M., Arnott, B., Leekam, S. R., and Turner, M. (2012). Mind-mindedness as a multidimensional construct: Appropriate and non-attuned mind-related comments independently predict infant–mother attachment in a socially diverse sample. Infancy, 17, 393-415. 

Charles Fernyhough is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University and author of Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts.

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