Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsReflective functioning, which is also known as mind mindedness, refers to our capacity to understand that our own behaviour and that of other people is underpinned by mental states such as intentions, beliefs, feelings, and desires. This is a really important concept and is relevant not only in terms of parenting during the perinatal period, but later as well. Reflective functioning is a uniquely human capacity and is what distinguishes us from other mammals who are not able to respond to the minds of other animals, only to their behaviour. Reflective functioning is as such a meta-cognitive process that enables us to engage in perspective taking and to monitor our own actions and that of others.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsIt's also an emotional process, in that it enables us to engage emotionally with another person. And research shows that reflective functioning on the part of the parent is particularly important during the early years of a child's life. Peter Fonagy, who is a Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College London, suggests that reflective functioning is important because 'the capacity of the parents to experience the baby is an 'intentional' being rather than simply viewing them in terms of physical characteristics or behaviour is what helps the child to develop an understanding of mental states in other people and to regulate their own internal experiences'.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsProfessor Arietta Slade, who you can watch shortly in the next video, has suggested that 'The mother's capacity to hold in her own mind a representation of her child as having feelings, desires and intentions, allows the child to discover his own internal experience via his mother's representation of it'. Parents who have an understanding of their child's internal world as a result of this capacity for reflective functioning are better able to understand the reason why a baby or a child behaves in a particular way and thereby, to respond more appropriately. For example, a mother who has a poor capacity for reflective functioning might, when her baby is crying incessantly, say, he's doing it to annoy me.

Skip to 2 minutes and 28 secondsAnd this feeling of persecution thereby reduces her ability to respond sympathetically. If, however, she was able to see that her baby was crying because he was feeling lonely or uncomfortable, she'll be able to respond more appropriately to the baby's needs. We also now know that it is the capacity for reflective functioning in the parent that enables the infant to begin to recognise and make sense of some of the primary feeling states that babies experience from birth and that we talked about earlier in the course. How does this happen?

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 secondsWell, it mostly happens as a result of the caregiving behaviours of the parent in the first year of life and as a result of their words and play when the child gets older. So an important feature of reflective functioning is the caregiver's ability not only to try to understand her infant's behaviour in terms of her internal feeling states, but to actually communicate her understanding of the child's internal states to the child. This is done by a process that has become known as marked mirroring, which has the role of helping babies to begin to understand what they are feeling. Let's look at this in a bit more detail.

Skip to 3 minutes and 42 secondsFacial expressions that help a baby to know his feelings are understood are known as mirroring. Mirroring is said to be marked when the parent mirrors the emotion, then quickly marks the interaction with a reassuring expression. Mirroring shows the baby that he is understood and reflects the feeling he is experiencing. The marking helps the baby know the feeling belongs to him and that the parent understands but is not overwhelmed and is therefore able to help him to manage such feelings. In one of the later steps, we have slowed down a video so that you can see a mother engaged in marked mirroring with her baby.

Skip to 4 minutes and 21 secondsParents who have a reduced capacity for reflective functioning can find the process of marked mirroring difficult, because they often aren't able to get a sense of what their baby is possibly feeling. These parents often engage in either too much or too little marked mirroring. For example, if the caregiver's response is marked but doesn't match the baby's emotional state, the baby will then identify with the incorrectly mirrored emotion and may then begin to develop what is known as a false or an alien self. Research shows that reflective function is strongly associated with maternal parenting behaviours, such as flexibility and responsiveness and that low maternal reflective function is associated with emotionally unresponsive maternal behaviours, such as withdrawal, hostility and intrusiveness.

Skip to 5 minutes and 14 secondsMaternal reflective function is also associated with beneficial infant outcomes, such as greater use of the parent as a secure base, and with infant attachment security. Watch the next video of an interview with Professor Arietta Slade, who is one of the key researchers working in the field of reflective functioning. This interview covers some of the key issues that we have begun to explore in the current video. If you would like to know more about reflective functioning, we've provided an introductory article also written by Professor Slade. We've also provided an article describing some of the findings of research on the consequences of reflective functioning.

Understanding other minds: reflective functioning

In this video we examine the way in which the parent’s cognitive mind (or their ability for thinking) can have an impact on their interaction with their baby. We focus in particular on the concept of ‘reflective functioning’, also known as ‘mind-mindedness’, which refers to the parent’s ability to think about and to understand their baby or child’s behaviour in terms of internal states such as feelings.

We examine what the research tells us about the impact of this ability of the parent to understand their baby’s mind in terms of their parenting behaviours, and some of the research which shows that parents who are not able to get inside their baby’s mind are much more likely to treat their infant’s behaviours in ‘concrete’ ways. We will discover later on this course that this has important implications for the baby’s attachment security.

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This video is from the free online course:

Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

The University of Warwick

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