Key Takeaway: The ability to imagine another's state of mind, control one's emotions, avoid assuming a hostile or hopeless mindset, and maintain a steady, authoritative parenting style will help anyone parent better, even those who have survived their own difficult childhood.
And you only need to "get it right" about 70 percent of the time.
Does this sound familiar?
You ask your kid(s) to stop playing on the computer in 15 minutes because it’s almost dinner. At the appointed time, you notice he’s still playing, and ask him to stop. He "just wants to finish the round." Just a minute. Five minutes later, there's no sign of wrapping up.
Is this on purpose? Doesn't he "respect" me? I just spent an hour cooking! Whatever is happening, it sure doesn't feel good. My mom/dad would have been screaming if I didn't "listen".
You ask a third and final time. He still doesn't seem to hear you. What happens next?
Parenting dilemmas are often pressurized, the emotional tumult and sense of rushing making it easy to lose one’s cool and/or misunderstand our children’s motives. At times like this, feelings of emotional injury and injustice can easily lead to conflict and aggression.
Often we have more inherent resources to deal with these situations than we realize, resources we can unlock by learning basic self-regulatory skills (though sometimes we really do have to get ready to catch that school bus right now!). This is not about blaming parents, but empowering us to raise more secure children and enjoy the fruits of successful parenting. This overview of mentalization, dissociation, self-concept clarity, and disorganized attachment covers fundamentals.
What determines how we as parents respond—recognizing we don’t need to be “perfect”? Getting it right about 70 percent of the time is, according to attachment research, good enough for most kids to become secure adults.
Emotional Regulation and the Ability to "Mentalize" Are Mission Critical for Parents
Parents with rough childhoods who understand trauma typically want to avoid repeating negatives and secure positives, a sometimes-challenging prospect. We may suppress one behavior only to find ourselves in another potentially destructive interaction. Different, but the same.
Yet relatively few children born to traumatized parents develop problems as a result of parental trauma. Something has to be happening to pass that trauma along. In addition to important biological factors that therapy may help reverse, what parenting behaviors transmit trauma? Two recent studies in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect identify key, actionable factors.
The first study (Wang, 2020), with 202 parents completing online research instrument1, looked at how parental mentalization affects child development.
Mentalization, also known as “reflective function,” is the ability to usefully think about our own and other’s inner mental life to make accurate models guiding both relating to others and making sense of our own responses. People may under-mentalize (“hypomentalize”), failing to capture the complexity of the other person’s inner life, as well as over-mentalize (“hypermentalize), being convinced they know more than what they actually do know about what is going on in the other person's head—typically with an unfavorable slant.
Wang found that effective parental emotion regulation and mentalization were associated with reduced symptoms and less functional difficulties for children. Steady emotion regulation gave parents a better chance of accurately interpreting kids’ behavior, versus over-ascribing bad intentions. While both emotion regulation and mentalization were associated with reduced behavioral problems, in this study only parental emotion regulation was associated with better functional outcomes.
A Hostile and/or Helpless State of Mind Impairs Even the Best Parent
The second study (Sauve et al., 2021) looked at how parental childhood trauma specifically can get passed to children, using a battery of careful assessments with 61 high-risk parents (e.g. referred to child protective services and in community treatment centers)2. Researchers focused on “hostile/helpless” (H/H) states of mind, core to disorganized attachment style. Disorganized attachment is a chaotic way of relating characterized by unpredictable switching from seemingly secure to fearful, to overly dependent, to rejecting and withdrawing, and so on.
H/H comes in three flavors: hostile, helpless, and mixed. People with the H/H profile have negative attachments with their own parents, conceiving them in “devaluing, contradictory, or very negative terms”. They tend to use less adaptive coping, seeing things in either/or terms, people as all good or all bad (“splitting”), identification with abusers (e.g. their own parents) and use “projection” (seeing our own worst qualities in others) to deal with interpersonal conflict. Hostility arises from helplessness and hostility renders us helpless, blocking self-soothing require to permit emotion regulation and the calm re-appraisal underpinning better decision-making.
The majority (66 percent) of parents had the H/H classification—10 hostile, 18 helpless, and 12 mixed. Eighty-five percent of parents reported one or more forms of maltreatment overall. The H/H style was significantly higher among parents with more severe childhood trauma. About a quarter of the children had significant behavioral problems. There were high rates of various forms of maltreatment among the parents, with 65 percent reporting emotional abuse, 45 percent physical, 42 percent sexual abuse, 68 percent emotional neglect, and 43 percent physical neglect.
This study found that H/H is a key factor bridging parental developmental trauma with negative outcomes in their children. Parental trauma alone was not associated with children's behavioral problems. Even in this group where over 80 percent of parents reported trauma, only about a quarter of children showed significant ill effects.
H/H is one of the clear conduits by which parents can pass traumatic experience and disorganized attachment onto children. Parents with trauma without H/H have an easier time meeting partners who will raise secure children., and do better dealing with co-parenting challenges. Parents with resolved trauma have better emotion regulation and mentalization, cultivate secure relationships, are less easily triggered, and if triggered cope better.
Putting These Skills Together To Form A New Parenting Style
Strengthening reflective function, learning to mentalize well, and interrupting hostile/helpless responses, rewrites the script. Building emotion regulation and mentalization undergird healthy self-control. Training to recognize specific disorganized attachment reactions in oneself, slow down, and reflect when emotions flare up and select more adaptive responses pays off both in the moment and over time.
Parents can cultivate a safer environment for children to explore the world and develop their own healthy capacity for mentalization and emotion regulation. By modulating their unresolved trauma during heated exchanges—instead, sharing stories of adversity in developmentally useful ways to pass along wisdom rather than injury—parents allow children’s natural resilience to flourish while improving their own sense of self-efficacy.
Why Authoritative Parenting Is Better Than Authoritarian Parenting
Life experiences also influence parenting style. Research (2020), for example, shows that parenting style may place children at risk for future abusive relationships. Parenting styles include the preferred “authoritative” parenting to the less adaptive permissive-indulgent, permissive-neglectful and authoritarian approaches. Authoritative parenting is characterized by warmth support, firm but fair behavioral guidelines, and low psychological and emotional intrusiveness, consistent with research on mentalization and emotion regulation.
A Few Therapeutic Approaches That Work
Develop plans for how to deal with distressing moments, learning to recognize early signs so you can hit pause, take stock, and select preferred options. The TARGET (Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy) model of trauma emotion regulation is straightforward, based on understanding how the brain’s alarm and regular operation systems work.
Parenting coaching approaches like Parent-Child Interaction Therapy and individual and couples approaches including Mentalization Based Therapy, trauma- and attachment/relational approaches, compassion-based therapies, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can help individuals develop better self-regulation.
In spite of advances in our understanding of trauma, child maltreatment, and the need for more compassionate safe developmental environments on a societal level, there is still a great deal of resistance to making the sweeping changes required. The social determinants of health need to be addressed to eliminate the stigma and denial that make it even more difficult for individuals and families.
1. Using online survey, 202 parents completed the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale) and other scales. They reported their own childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. They completed the Difficulties in Emotional Regulation Scale, and rated mentalization with the Parental Reflective Functioning Questionnaire (PRFQ). Parent’s rated children’s behavioral problems (e.g. being overly argumentative, causing trouble “for no reason”) and functional status with the Ohio Youth Problem, Functioning and Satisfaction Scale.The PRFQ looks at 1) the tendency to see children’s behavior as malevolent (“prementalizing”), 2) over-mentalizing (excessive certainty about their children’s inner life, and 3) curiosity about their children’s mental states.
2. Researchers studied 61 parents and their children, age 1 to 6 years old, from a high-risk population with lower socioeconomic status and high rates of maltreatment from child protective agencies and community service organizations. They surveyed parent’s traumatic experiences as children with the Child Trauma Questionnaire, their attachment style with the Adult Attachment Inventory with identification of the H/H type in parenting style. They also looked at outcomes for children including both internalizing and externalizing behaviors using the Child Behavior Checklist. Internalizing includes problems like depression anxiety and externalizing behaviors include attentional issues and disruptive behavior.
Xiafei Wang, Intergenerational effects of childhood maltreatment: The roles of parents’ emotion regulation and mentalization, Child Abuse & Neglect, 2021, 104940, ISSN 0145-2134, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2021.104940.
Michèle Sauvé, Chantal Cyr, Diane St-Laurent, Laetitia Mélissande Amédée, Karine Dubois-Comtois, George M. Tarabulsy, Annie Bernier, Ellen Moss, Transmission of parental childhood trauma to child behavior problems: Parental Hostile/Helpless state of mind as a moderator, Child Abuse & Neglect, 2021, 104885, ISSN 0145-2134, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104885.
Note: An ExperiMentations Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice, or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third-party comments on Our Blog Post. Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publishers/Psychology Today. Grant H. Brenner. All rights reserved.