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The impact of reflective functioning

The research has consistently shown that the parent’s attachment status is a significant predictor of the infant’s attachment status. For example, a review of studies that had measured adult attachment using the Adult Attachment Interview, found that such attachment was a significant predictor of infant attachment security.

However, there has been a lack of clarity about the way in which the mother’s attachment status is transmitted to the child. An overview of the evidence exploring the parental antecedents of infant attachment security found that sensitivity in terms of the parent’s responsiveness to infant distress was an important factor influencing whether the infant was securely attached. However, this overview also found that sensitivity had not been shown to be the exclusive or most important factor. This gap in our understanding about the way in which the parent influences infant attachment security became known as the ‘transmission gap’.

There has been a concerted effort on the part of developmental psychologists to identify other factors, and parental reflective functioning, also described in this research as parental mind-mindedness, has begun to emerge from this rapidly developing body of research as a key factor in the transmission of attachment from parent to child.

In one such study, a group of researchers at Durham University examined the predictors of infant attachment security in 71 mothers and six month old infants by measuring the association between maternal sensitivity as assessed by her interactions during a 20 minute play session; maternal mind-mindedness as assessed by the use of appropriate mind-related comments; and infant attachment security at 12 months using the Strange Situation Procedure. This research shows that maternal sensitivity and maternal mind-mindedness both independently predicted infant attachment security at 12 months. Click on the link if you would like to read this paper in full.

Another study by Professor Slade (see interview – 2.16) that measured parental attachment, parental reflective functioning and infant attachment found a strong association between adult attachment and reflective functioning, and a strong association between reflective functioning and infant attachment. Further analysis shows that reflective function was the factor linking (i.e. it mediated) parental and infant attachment status.

These studies show that the parental cognitive mind is playing a significant role in shaping the infant’s mind.

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Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

The University of Warwick

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