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Interview with Arietta Slade

Watch this video. Jane Barlow interviews Arietta Slade, Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Co-director of Minding the Baby.
I’m talking to Dr Arietta Slade, Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Centre. Arietta, in this course, we’ve been thinking about the way in which the parents’ emotional and cognitive mind influences the infant self organisation. Can you tell us a little bit about what reflective functioning is? Yes, I can and I just want to start by saying that it sounds much more complicated than it is. And it’s actually a very simple idea and it refers to a parent or a person thinking about what’s going on in the mind of the person with whom they’re communicating or thinking about what’s going on in their own mind.
So we speak about it as the capacity to imagine the mind of the other or imagine what’s going on in one’s own mind. So would you like me to give you an example? Yes. That would be good. So an example of this would be, if a mother comes home from a long day at work and her child comes up to her and starts crying and clinging to her skirt, she might on the one hand, be primarily concerned with stopping that behaviour. I’ve had a long day. Please stop that. And another approach would be to… and it often happens intuitively. I mean, it’s not something that you teach someone necessarily.
But a mother might think to herself, or not even at a conscious level, respond with an awareness that what’s going on in her child’s mind is the she’s missed her, that she’s happy that she’s home, but that she was unhappy that she was gone. And so her crying is an expression of that. And rather than stopping the crying, she might want to try to meet the need of, ‘I’ve missed you all day. I need a hug. I need to be reassured that you’re really back’ and to just take the baby in her arms for a few moments, let’s say, and give her a hug and a kiss and maybe snuggle with her for a minute before she puts her down.
And that is much more likely to calm the baby than if she were to say, stop it. Cut it out. I’ve had a long day at work, and I need to go cook dinner. And just that awareness of what’s going on in the child’s mind the awareness that the child is probably a little needy, a little hungry, a little unhappy, and happy to see her mum just to meet those needs and just respond to them briefly. It’s not necessarily a big half hour response. Just an awareness that the child has had these feelings and thoughts and longings and to respond to them.
And that’s really a good definition of thinking about what’s inside, rather than just trying to control what’s outside. OK. That’s really helpful. So tell us a little bit about some of your research because your research suggests that reflective functioning in some way affects parenting behaviour or particularly interested in parenting behaviours around infancy. Yes. Well, I think as in the example I just gave you in which a mother responds to the child’s crying by trying to imagine what’s causing the crying, what’s going on in the child’s mind, her behaviour is going to be in response to the child’s thoughts and feelings, rather than simply an effort to control and stop the behaviours.
And ironically, responding to what’s going on inside of the child is more likely to stop the behaviours than just trying to control the child’s behaviour. For instance, if she says when she’s come home from work and the child is crying, if she says, stop crying, that’s likely to upset the child more. Whereas if she says, ‘oh you’ve missed me. I’m glad to see you. Let me give you a hug’ in response to the child’s need, that is actually likely to calm the child and sooth the child, in which case she’ll be much more likely to go on and entertain herself while mum cooks dinner, rather than following mum around the kitchen and complaining at her, or father.
Obviously this equally happens with dads. OK. So in this course, we’ve been thinking a little bit about attachment. What does your research tell us about the relationship between reflective functioning and the likelihood of a child being securely attached? Well, as I’m sure your students know by now, secure attachment means two things. It means that you feel safe in seeking comfort when you need it and you feel safe in exploring the world knowing that somebody will essentially have your back.
And what happens to a child when they have the experience repeatedly over the course of infancy, that mum is there, that mum understands what’s going on in their minds, that mum meets what’s going on in their minds, then they’re much more likely to feel safe in coming to mum or dad for comfort and much more likely to feel safe in exploring. Because in a sense, they know that mum or dad is there for them when they go out into the world. And so that a sense of security comes from feeling known.
Not feeling known is a very lonely feeling, but feeling understood and feeling that other people are curious about what’s going in your mind, interested in it, makes you feel safer. It makes you feel, again, not alone and makes it more likely that you will see the world as an opportunity rather than a place of potential fear or danger because you know you have, if you will, that person with you. So can you tell us a little bit about the process? Because I’ve talked a little bit about marked mirroring and marked mirroring is the process by which parents convey to the baby that they’ve understood what it is they’re feeling. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, just to pick up on mother coming home from work after a long day and the baby’s crying. And marked mirroring would be to respond by, ‘Honey, did you miss me? You missed me? Oh, you’re sad, maybe you really missed me, let me give you a hug’. That mother is, in effect, holding up the infant’s response, probably mimicking her facial expression, probably showing some unhappiness in her face and her eyes, but not doing it in a way that’s exactly the same as the baby, but actually doing it in a way that makes it a little bit bigger, a little bit more explicit, if you will, a little bit more marked so that the baby in effect, has her experience handed back to her.
In a way, someone is framing it for her. This is what I’m feeling. This is what’s going on. I’m happy to see my mum. I’m sad she was away. I’m a little cranky. That’s what I’m communicating. And now in a way, I understand it even better because it’s been represented to me. It’s been made coherent and explicit to me. And I want to emphasise that this is not something that parents think about in a laborious way as they come home from work because no one would ever survive a day experiencing it that way. Rather it’s something that happens intuitively. It’s something that happens out of the relationship.
It’s something that happens out of curiosity about the other person and openness to the other person. And when your highly stressed or don’t know where you’re going to get your next meal or don’t know about the security of your housing, that kind of relax engagement with another person’s mind is more difficult. That kind of attitude of openness and flexibility is more difficult. So that you may in fact be too stressed in that moment to take on the child’s experience, if you will, and that’s when trouble starts. So are there wider sorts of factors that are associated with a parent’s ability to be high or low in reflective functioning?
Well, you know, I think that the less a parent is in or approaching a state of fight or flight, a state of being stressed really and fight or flight is kind of the most extreme form of feeling stressed. But if you will, to have yourself emotionally and cognitively online for another person, to have yourself cognitively and emotionally available to another person, you can’t be in a physical state of being highly aroused, highly stressed, dysregulated. Because the more you’re in that state, the more your whole body and your whole mind is geared toward just surviving the moment, if you will.
And we all know this from the 25 times we came from work when our children were little and clamoured after us, and we said, ‘go watch TV’ or ‘go sit down’ or ‘get out of my way’ because we were in that state. I mean, that’s a very common experience. But when it overrides the interaction on a regular basis, when it overrides a parent’s capacity to be present for the child or for themselves, you know, to say, ‘well I’ve had a really hard day. I’m still mad at my boss, and I need to sit and collect myself for a minute’. That kind of awareness is challenged by high levels of stress. And it’s really as if the mind…
once you’re in a sort of activated state, different parts of the brain are engaged than when you’re in a reflective state, when you’re in a open curious state. And obviously it’s impossible to be in that open curious state all the time, but what we try to get parents aware of and what we try to be aware of as clinicians when we can also be an inactivated state, is how to calm that down enough so that we can be present, emotionally present, curious, flexible and open. OK. So my next question was really about what we can do then to support parents who are having difficulty in terms of reflective functioning?
Well, I think what you see in parents who are really struggling with this, is first of all, an awareness that the child has thoughts and feelings of their own. Many parents who are struggling, when you speak to them about the child or about themselves, they don’t use emotion words like, feel, angry, sad, frightened. Those words are more or less absent from their vocabulary or happy, joyful, curious. None of those states or even the states like, he knows, he wants. States of desire, of intention. He’s going to go do this. I’m sorry. That’s not a great example. He wants this. He wants a toy.
When you don’t have that awareness of the mind of the other, you get focused much more on behaviour. He’s always getting into trouble. He’s stubborn. He’s pig-headed. Those are not ways of appreciating what’s going on in the child. And it can be very difficult to get a parent kind of off the dime of stopping behaviour and into a mode of even being for a moment open and sympathetic to what’s going on inside a child. And sometimes parents will say, ‘Oh! You mean if I really can attend to what’s going on with him, he might do what I want?’
In other words, they begin to appreciate that if they’re able to slow down their own reactions enough and not respond too quickly and not respond out of stress, that actually they can have a more satisfying engaged time with the child than if they’re really just trying to control behaviour. And this can be a process. You know, it’s not something that you can just put parents in a parenting class and teach them this. You often really need to engage them, first, in a relationship with a clinician or a teacher or someone who’s calming and safe to them, and then they can begin to have these kinds of experiences of curiosity about the other. That was very helpful. Thank you very much.
You’re welcome. My pleasure.

In this interview Jane talks to Arietta Slade, who is Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, Co-director of Minding the Baby and an internationally recognised theoretician, clinician, researcher, and teacher, who has published widely on reflective parenting.

We examine the concept of ‘reflective functioning’ in terms of what it means for the interaction between the infant and the parent. Professor Slade describes the way in which this concept has helped us to understand more about the factors that contribute to an infant being securely attached.

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Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

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