Parenthood as a Developmental Phase

What is reflective thinking?

Posted Sep 15, 2012

With childbirth a parent confronts old challenges in a new relationship and has a second shot at mastering them. Emotional growth as a parent is, in fact, key to a child’s development, says Linda Mayes of the Yale Child Study Center.

An evolving parent-child relationship comes from “reflective thinking,” the ability to perceive one’s own internal mental states as distinct from those of one’s child. A caregiver with reflective functioning thus sees their child as a separate, progressively autonomous individual with thoughts, feelings, intentions and desires of their own. This theory of parenting grows from the research of psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy and the Tavistock Clinic in London.

The second part of the reflective equation is recognizing, as a parent, how your own emotional history intrudes into the present. There are ghosts in every nursery, as psychoanalyst, Selma Fraiberg puts it, visitors from a parent’s unremembered past.

Consider: a parent who doesn’t hear her baby cry because her own cries, as an infant, went unheard by a depressed, rejecting mother. If you grew up with a critical parent, does your own child reactivate feelings of inadequacy? Someone whose childhood was bathed in entitlement may feel the flip side – cheated -- as a parent. Fraiberg calls these phantoms “transference ghosts.” Ancestral invaders stake their emotional claim on those living in the present.

Reflective thinking demands that a parent mentalize their interaction with their child. This means taking note of the mental states in oneself and others, seeing beneath overt behaviors to the psychological motivations that are fueling them. A friend put it to me this way: look beneath the surface of the interaction to what’s happening in the parenthesis. More important than the questions “how do I manage this?” is asking oneself “how does it make me feel?”

Reflective functioning enables the regulation of affect. Being able to monitor one’s own emotional triggers, understanding how old feelings get reactivated, in turn enhances a parent’s capacity to hear, process and respond to child’s auditory or visual cues. Mayes calls this “enhanced signal detection,” a kind of sensitivity and attunement to a child’s needs.

Mindful reflection on the part of a parent helps a child cultivate their own reflective “muscles.” It strengthens the parent-child bond and fosters cognitive development, advancing a child’s intellect and the ways they learn to use their knowledge.

A change in reflective perception can have ripples effects. More than changing the child-caregiver dyad, it can shift the family perceptual system and transgenerational patterns of caregiving.

To paraphrase the Lebenese poet Kahlil Gibran: though children are with us and come through us, their souls do not belong to us. We are the stable bows from which our “children as living arrows are sent forth."

The Archer, illustration by Kahlil Gibran


Main Reference

Linda C. Mayes, “Making Room in One’s Mind for a Child.” Paper given at The Development of the Parent as a Person: Psychological, Neurobiological and Genetic Contributions, conference sponsored by The Erik Erikson Institute, Yale Child Study Center, and Yale Dept. of Psychiatry. Austen Riggs, Stockbridge, MA. July 20, 2012.

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