by Richard Delaney, PhD
Dr. Delaney is a clinical psychologist who has worked with foster, kinship, and adoptive parents and their children for more than 30 years. His thoughts about parental mind reading were recently studied at Northwest Media, parent company of Foster Parent College. He is a major contributor to the interactive online training at Foster Parent College and author of several books that are available at www.sociallearning.com.
“We (humans) are the experts at mind reading…the perfecting of quick and expert reading of intention in others has been paramount in the evolution of human social behavior.” — E.O. Wilson, world-renowned scientist
Mind reading is “the capacity to interpret the behavior of others and oneself in terms of underlying mental states, like feelings, thoughts, beliefs and desires.” — P.L. Harris, researcher
You have heard that as a parent it helps to have eyes in the back of your head. It is equally handy to be a mind reader. But don’t panic! You probably already read minds better than you think.
People are social beings. It’s central to who we are at home, at work, at school, or in the community. We are equipped with a mind that allows us to not only think (and react) quickly but also to step back and process others’ and our own thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Ideally, humans learn to be social in their earliest attachment relationships, typically within their families. Attachment acts as a sanctuary, as a safe place to identify, sort out, and voice thoughts, feelings, and intentions. In this social environment, over time, children learn to read minds—that is, to make educated guesses about the thoughts, feelings, and intentions underlying the actions of others. As children develop, they can also think about their own thoughts, explore their feelings, and interpret their intentions. Those who become effective mind readers are less likely to be overwhelmed by emotion or to resort to behavior rather than words to describe needs and feelings.
Psychologist and psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy explains this type of mind reading—also called mentalization—this way: “Mentalization is seeing others from the outside-in and ourselves from the inside-out.”
Challenges with Understanding Others and Oneself
Children who have experienced relational trauma often don’t understand others from the outside-in. It can start with their first family relationship. If a child’s parent is erratic or dealing with mind-altering substance use, the child will find it difficult to read the parent’s mind. Then later in life the child may struggle to answer, “What does the person’s behavior—what I see—tell me about what they intend?” This lack of understanding can lead to a tendency to misread others’ intentions when a social situation isn’t straightforward. Frequently, this means a child will read rejection where it is not intended, see put-downs where they are not, and feel threatened in social situations that are really harmless. If they misread, they might needlessly flee or fight, withdraw, or become aggressive.
Children who have experienced trauma may also have difficulty from the inside-out. Maltreated children’s expressions of thoughts and feelings, especially negative ones, are often ignored, punished, and invalidated. As a result, they may not understand how they are coming across to others or how their feelings affect their behavior. Brain research on abuse, neglect, and other trauma points to stunted developmental delays in areas related to understanding feelings. This means that some children, many of whom may have experienced trauma, lack words for—or the ability to identify—their feelings. But this delayed development can be overcome.
Agencies Can Improve Parent Preparation
Imagine a world in which you have no idea about what your caregiver is thinking or feeling! Imagine your world as a child where no one has helped you verbalize your own thoughts and feelings.
We can help children learn to understand feelings from the outside-in and the inside-out. One way to start is by changing how we prepare foster and adoptive parents. Unfortunately, for decades, training for foster and adoptive parents has focused on discipline to teach children to comply, behave, or control their emotional outbursts. Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen a shift that emphasizes understanding the child’s mental state and how different states relate to behavior. Recently, training has encouraged caregivers to help children sort out their own mind as a way of reducing their behavior problems.
Dr. Carla Sharp, a researcher at the University of Houston, has focused on the importance of understanding the child’s mind (including thoughts, beliefs, goals, and feelings) and how it relates to the child’s behavior. She argues that coping with the behavior of children who have been insecurely attached calls for intense efforts on caregivers’ part. Parents should be vigilant in their attention to the emotional and mental state of their children, responding to cues and anticipating triggers. They must also learn to be hyper-alert to their own triggers and develop strategies to respond therapeutically to a child who has tapped into the parents’ own trauma and loss histories.
Other mentalizing experts have underscored that parents must dedicate themselves to understanding their child’s intentions and feelings and convey that understanding to the child to give him or her a sense of connection, confidence, and safety. A mind-to-mind connection from parent to child helps the child control emotions rather than act them out through behavior.
Some children in foster care or adoption come from neglectful, children-are-seen-not-heard backgrounds where their thoughts, feelings, and developing minds were of no concern to caregivers. Others were raised harshly and were forced to behave, with no attention paid to how they thought or felt. Some current foster/adoptive training may unintentionally reinforce this tendency toward external control. Parents may become fixated on the child’s misbehavior and making it disappear. Instead, preparation classes should help parents accomplish the needed change in mindset. Introducing a mind-reading approach broadens the focus beyond the observable behavior to the unseen cause (that is, the trauma and loss).
An attachment-centered training philosophy emphasizes that the parent needs to be a reliable and responsive caregiver for the child to become securely attached. Training must acknowledge the recent findings that attachment forms securely when the parent has the capacity to reflect on the child; understand the child’s thoughts, feelings and intentions; and help the child sort these thoughts and feelings out, organize them better, and express them verbally rather than behaviorally.
Parents Can Improve Their and Their Child’s Mind-Reading Skills
People use mind reading constantly throughout the day, often unconsciously, in all sorts of dealings with others—whether it’s buying groceries or at work in brief interactions with others. However, just because mind reading is natural for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for a child who has experienced trauma. A child’s behavior, thoughts, feelings, and intentions may be as baffling to her as they are to you.
Helping children better understand themselves and others starts by opening your home and family to a child. The basic sense of safety, predictability, and love you provide makes a tremendous difference.
Beyond that, though, how can we as parents apply mind reading to a child who has experienced trauma? Of course we can’t really look into a child’s mind. But we can make reasonable guesses about what’s going on with a child’s thinking. We must answer the question, “Are we imposing our thoughts on her or are we really opening our mind to reading her feelings, thoughts, and intentions?”
The next step would be to refine the mind-reading “guess.” We can emphasize curiosity about a child’s state-of-mind and encourage her to enlighten us about how she is thinking and feeling and what her intentions are.
After we have an answer to what’s going on, we need to figure out why the child is thinking that. To accomplish this, the best thing you can do is learn to understand your child better. This will enable you to understand the causes of behaviors and help your child learn from your efforts that her behavior has its roots in her feelings and assumptions—and that she can learn to better understand and cope with them.
Below are some tips both to help you better read your child’s mind and to help your child learn to read others’ thoughts and feelings.
Learning to Be a Better Mind Reader
- Be sensitive to how past trauma may affect how your child thinks, feels, and acts. If your child grows sullen and pouty when the family is sharing a laugh, have you considered that he might assume that the family is laughing at him, not with him? Is it possible that a history of ridicule and being laughed at has shaped his thoughts and expectations? Can you lend immediate clarity and reassurance that you are not laughing at him? Can you talk with him later about what happened and what he felt?
When he smiles in a certain way and grows silent, does it lead you to believe he is covering up other unpleasant feelings? Would it be helpful to ask him right then or perhaps later about the situation?
If your child rarely, if ever, asks for attention but seems to be quite interested in watching as other children gain your attention, would you have a hunch that he is uncomfortable asking for what he needs from you?
- Validate your child’s thoughts and feelings. Convey to your child that she can speak her mind in the safety of your home and your relationship. Many children have come from homes where no one supported or paid attention to their feelings. You can start by accepting the child as a person struggling with a feeling. So you might say, “You are understandably upset. You probably have good reasons to feel that way. Help me understand how you feel.”
Be careful not to try to make a child feel better by negating their feelings. For example, if a child says that no one likes her, it’s a common parenting response to say, “Don’t be silly—lots of people like you.” Instead, encourage the child to talk more about why she believes this and how that feels. This approach is more likely to help the child come to her own conclusions about how to feel more likeable.
When your child is clearly having strong feelings, but unable to express them, try to put yourself in her position, using active listening skills to rephrase the feeling you are witnessing or suspecting. In this way, the powerful emotions can be removed enough from the child to make it safe for her to explore them. Imagine your child comes home from school looking and feeling dejected, but unable to talk to you about it. You received a call from the teacher earlier in the day, informing you that your child was sent to the principal’s office for disrupting the class. A good mind-reading approach might go as follows. Speaking calmly and non-judgmentally, you might say, “Mrs. Clark called to say you were sent to the principal’s office today. How did you feel when that
You might suspect that your child felt embarrassed, unfairly blamed, scared, or some other feeling, but you keep that to yourself for now. If she answers your question with how she felt, you can paraphrase what was said. If she has no answer or cannot get the feeling across in words, you could then say, “I couldn’t help but think how I would feel if that happened to me. I think I might feel embarrassed in front of my classmates, and worried that I’d be in trouble at home. Oh, and by the way, you are not in trouble. I just want to understand.” The point is not to put words in your child’s mouth, but to show that you are truly interested in the thoughts and feelings she was having at the time. It also opens the door to sorting out and discussing (with thoughts and feelings in mind) the entire episode that started with disruptive behavior of some sort.
- Keep a log of your observations and hunches about how your child might think about key people, himself, and life events. Stay open-minded and challenge your conclusions about your child’s mind. Ask yourself, “Am I jumping to conclusions about what my child’s intentions are?” “What else might my child be thinking at this time?” At quieter times, ask your child about your assumptions and see what he thinks of them. Including him in the process of learning about his feelings and thoughts is empowering and builds attachment. It demonstrates that he is important to you and that you and he are doing this work of healing and becoming a family together.
The log can also be used to help identify triggers for your child—and for you. And together you can develop strategies to address them.
- Think of behavior problems and emotional meltdowns as an opportunity to work on your mind-reading skills as well as the child’s. When things go awry, think about how you get beyond the behavior to what’s going on inside the child. You might use open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me what’s on your mind? Help me to understand what you are thinking.”
- Keep in mind that feeling understood can be both reassuring and scary. Feeling understood is often a rewarding feeling, but some children find a foster or adoptive parent’s interest in them somewhat alien or even a bit threatening at times. Go slow and move carefully.
Supporting Your Child’s Ability to Read Minds
- Talk with your child about how you guess what others are thinking. Explore why you make the assumptions you do so they can learn from you. For example, you can explain to your older child what mind reading looks like and how it can lead to wrong assumptions, as well as modeling how to clarify what you were “reading.”
Here’s how such a conversation might go:
Today, when came to work I thought Sally was upset with me. I was scared to talk to her, but when I said “hi,” she actually smiled back at me. Later I asked her if she was upset about something. She told me about a worry she had about her daughter. I thought she was mad at me, but I was wrong. If I hadn’t asked, I would have never known for sure what she was thinking.
- When you’re having a conversation, stop and ask your child what she thinks about how you are feeling. Help her think through what your body language might mean or what is going unsaid.
- When learning moments happen, deconstruct the situation to help your child understand what happened, why, and what alternative responses could have been. You need to get beyond “he did this…and I did that” and ask questions about feelings and the assumptions being made. Talking about more than the basic facts can lead to conversations about what others might have felt or intended. You might ask, “What else could she have been thinking when she walked away from you?” “Are there ways to look at that other than she doesn’t like you?”
One example is to break things down sequentially: “Okay, so at first things were going well on the playground. Then something happened to upset you—what was it?” Starting there, you can draw out the possible thoughts, feelings, and intentions related to the behavior that occurred.
The bottom line is that children need to believe that someone values how they think and feel. So, actively listen and watch non-judgmentally while you try to bring out and identify their underlying thoughts and feelings. But don’t forget to pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings related to how you are interacting with your child. Adoptive and foster parents need to keep their own thoughts and feelings in mind, especially when working with children who are challenging.
Originally published in 2016