Post No.: 0600
‘Mentalisation’ refers to the ability to perceive and interpret our own and other people’s behaviours in terms of mental states – in other words, thinking about and understanding what’s going on in our own and other people’s minds, such as our or their emotions, needs, beliefs and goals. Some argue that mentalisation only concerns reflecting upon emotional mental states, whilst reflecting upon beliefs and motivations falls under theory of mind. For others, the distinction isn’t critical since it’s all about ‘thinking about thinking’; or being mindful of our and other people’s emotions or feelings, thoughts and motivations.
In the context of interacting with a disruptive child in school, the habit of mentalising firstly helps foster carers, teachers, counsellors and others to think about their own state of mind – to think ‘what do I think and feel in relation to this intense situation?’ And ‘how much of how I’m behaving is actually a reflection of my own mind or is a response to the child I’m looking after?’ Secondly, it helps such people to think about the mental states, thoughts and feelings of the children they’re looking after.
Being more mindful of our own emotions rather than being purely reactive to whatever emotions we’re experiencing can improve our emotional regulation, especially when they’re often triggered by what someone else is doing or saying. (This is similar to what is taught in the philosophy of Stoicism – we ultimately control our emotions, not anyone or anything else, through how we choose to react to external events.) This will help when managing a frequently difficult child during a really intensely emotional moment when we might say or do something we’ll later regret. Despite our own instincts to fight, flight or freeze, we can take a step back and understand that a child is not being deliberately difficult towards us as a personal attack but is behaving this way due to his/her past maltreatment or traumas. This in turn reduces our stress and allows us to respond in better ways that will help build a trusting relationship with them in the long run. Woof!
After an incident and everyone has calmed down in a safe space – to teach a child about mentalisation and to reflect on the event, one can ask him/her how he/she is feeling and thinking right now? Teach him/her how to label and interpret these emotions. One can then ask him/her to think about the other person(s) who was involved in the incident (whether it was a carer, another child or someone else) – how they may be feeling and thinking – and why he/she thinks they acted in the way they did? Teach him/her to empathise with the other person, maybe by imagining if the positions were reversed. Perhaps provide a few options for more desirable ways to respond in the future and ask the child if he/she thinks that any of these responses would’ve been better and why?
Mentalisation is of course useful for anyone during any stressful or frustrating situation or heated argument too, where we want to make or maintain good relationships with others but our instincts in the heat of the moment will seem to make us want to destroy it by reciprocating with hurtful comments or even physical violence. Our ability to regulate our emotions is part of being emotionally and socially intelligent.
Mentalisation teaches us for the next time when someone behaves antisocially towards us – especially if they’re not always like that or if we don’t know them that well – to consider what might be going through their mind, what might be going on in their private life right now that we do or don’t know of, and what traumas might have happened to them in the past? You could say that it’s a conscious, deliberate and step-by-step form of applying empathy. You’d probably not feel so great or come out looking great if that person was really trying to express a call for help but you made things worse by not mentally understanding them in time. Their terrible behaviour does speak about them but this might precisely mean that offering our compassion is more appropriate than our judgement.
There are causal reasons for everything hence we need to be better detectives than judges. For instance, if someone was always punished as a child by their parents for crying or complaining, they may grow up with an underdeveloped ability to express their pains to others or therefore ask for help. They can become conditioned to hide their pains from the public as much as possible from a very young age. (But this won’t mean they won’t still feel it or express it in private.) Not being allowed out of the house to socialise much with friends doesn’t help a developing child to develop their social confidence to intimate their deepest, personal vulnerabilities, pains and problems with others too. (Expressing love also leaves us vulnerable hence this ability could be stunted.) Parents who don’t interact with their children much except with reprimands, punishments and orders won’t create the right idea of what a healthy relationship should be like either. The importance of keeping a child’s mind in mind was also conveyed in Post No.: 0577.
Not asking for help when we need help, and ‘masculine’ expectations of not showing any ‘weaknesses’ or any emotions except anger towards others, are harmful attitudes or behaviours in the long run for the individuals and for wider society. We may have an overall okay record of handling things on our own so far but some situations are just too big to handle on one’s own, no matter how great one’s own past record. We evolved to cry, scream or yelp when in pain, complain when unhappy and other emotional and communicative processes for a very good survival reason, and these behaviours should be allowed to hone in a child where appropriate, rather than stifled wholesale. So mentalisation isn’t about denying or suppressing our or a child’s emotions but about mindfully being aware of and recognising when we or they are feeling an intense emotion like anger or sadness, being able to discuss what triggered it, and finding a healthier answer to resolve the situation and move on with closure or acceptance.
Related to understanding our and other people’s histories – children who’ve been through the care system often experience changes in social workers, carers, institutions and homes before being placed with a permanent adoptive family, hence bits of their past may be missing, lost or forgotten. Some children might not even know who their birth parents were, or understand why they went into care in the first place because no one explained that to them in a way that they understood.
A child definitely needs to learn that they’re not to blame for their past maltreatment. So ‘life story work’ here is the process of helping children who’ve been separated from their biological families to remember and make sense of their early lives and heritage. This usually means making a ‘life story book’ that establishes a coherent narrative about their life. This might be compulsory for a social worker to do with any child who comes into the care system – but it needs to be of a high standard and ongoing throughout a young person’s life.
Remembering vividly and making sense of our past is a crucial part of anchoring a coherent sense of self, for understanding how we’ve become the individual we are today, and for navigating through potentially difficult present and future situations based on what we’ve learnt from our previous experiences.
It’s vital for people to have a strong support system in place before they venture down the road of recovery though because revisiting past traumas may aggravate their mental health. Yet confronting these traumatic memories and facing one’s fears and emotional pains is arguably part of the recovery process. It’ll likely need a case-by-case and age-appropriateness consideration – so do please seek professional mental health support if you’ve been affected. But most people find having a coherent narrative for their life, even if it includes difficult chapters, immensely helpful.
In sum, the benefit of practising the skill of mentalisation (and mentalisation is indeed a skill that can be practised) is being more in control of our own emotions rather than having our emotions being in control of us. We don’t want to be merely reactive to whatever or whoever is trying to make us annoyed or want to growl. And part of understanding why someone is the way they are, or why we are the way we are, is understanding their, or our, history from childhood. We might not know any differently than the childhood that we personally had to suspect that it had anything to do with our present self. This however doesn’t mean we are bound to our past traumas, and most people find it useful to know where they as a person have come from.
Woof. If you have personal experiences of the care system and want to share things you’d like the rest of us to know that might help everyone to better understand experiences similar to yours then you can do so by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.