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Both the mother’s and father’s mind-mindedness when a baby is four months and 12 months old influence the way the baby manages emotions at 12 months.
A new study has found that how well a baby manages emotions is influenced not only by the quality of parenting but even more so by the mother’s and father’s “mind-mindedness” – the ability to manage the physical and emotional states of their baby – during the first year.
In the early years, children are hugely dependent on their parents’ ability to help them manage their emotions. Mind-mindedness is assessed by observing whether parents respond appropriately or inappropriately to their child’s emotions during free-play interactions. A key question is how a parent names different emotions that the child experiences, enabling the child to recognise and manage them better. For example, when a child becomes overstimulated in a game –turning away from the caregiver, tuning out or having frantic moments – a mind-minded parent accurately understands the signal and responds appropriately by pausing the game and enabling the child to recover. When such responses are repeated many times, children learn from their parents how to manage their own emotions.
Earlier research has found that mind-mindedness is linked to secure parent-child attachment, which is in turn linked to children’s ability to depend on parents’ responding appropriately to emotional cues. So, for example, if a child becomes angry or fearful, this emotion becomes associated with a parent’s helpful response. The child can learn to trust that arousal with the parent present will not lead to disruption that goes beyond his or her ability to cope.
The researchers, led by Moniek Zeegers at the Research Institute of Child Development and Education in the Netherlands, measured emotion regulation via “high-frequency heart rate variation” (HRV) – the variation in duration between subsequent heartbeats. Previous research has shown two things. First, a higher baseline HRV in toddlers is related to better regulation of emotions, as well as a more general alertness and responsiveness to the environment. Second, in a socially stressful situation, such as meeting a stranger or encountering a non-responsive face, HRV goes down; a larger drop is associated with stronger coping with the challenging situation.
The researchers found that mind-mindedness in both mothers and fathers is linked to improved emotion regulation in 12-month-old babies. But they also found differences between mothers and fathers in how mind-mindedness influences children.
For mothers, stronger mind-mindedness when the baby was 4 months old predicted more positive HRV in the baby at 12 months (higher baseline, more decline in a situation with a stranger). For fathers, there was no such link, but there was a link between a father’s mind-mindedness later, at 12 months, and HRV (both measures) at 12 months. This may reflect the fact that mothers tend to be more involved in caring for infants earlier on, so the mother’s influence displays itself earlier, on average.
The researchers found that the baby’s heart rate variation at four months did not predict a parent’s mind-mindedness at 12 months. Judging by other research, the child’s temperament would be expected to influence parenting, but perhaps in the case of a child’s ability to regulate emotions, this influence takes more than one year to exhibit itself.
The researchers found that measures of mind-mindedness and measures of parenting quality at 12 months correlated for fathers, but not for mothers. They were not able to explain this finding; they suggest that the problem might be the rather coarse measure of parenting quality used in the research.
Zeegers and her team recommend looking further at the longer-term influence of parental mind-mindedness on child cognitive and social development. Other research projects have started to show links between parental mind-mindedness and a child’s ability to interpret other people’s behavior. Maternal mind-mindedness predicts a child’s better working memory at 18 months and better management of conflict and impulses at 26 months. Paternal mind-mindedness predicts a child’s ability to control impulses at 18 months.
Another aspect that needs further work is how mothers’ and fathers’ mind-mindedness interact with each other during coparenting. In coparenting, one parent can strengthen or compensate for the other, so their influences become mixed.
This study took place in the Netherlands and involved 116 mothers and fathers, with measurements at four months and 12 months. The data were drawn from a larger, longer-term longitudinal program. The research is unusual in that it measures both mothers and fathers.
Mind-mindedness was measured at four months by recording a five-minute parent-child free play session. At 12 months, the session lasted 10 minutes. All the comments by the parents were classified as either being directed at the child’s mental state or not. If so, the statements were categorized as cognitions (e.g., “you remembered this from the zoo”), likes and dislikes (e.g. “you don’t like this rattle”) or emotions (e.g., “you’re all excited to play with these toys”). After this, each comment was coded as ‘appropriate’ or ‘non-attuned’ to the child’s mental state.
The heart rate variation was measured at baseline and then in a stranger situation – an unfamiliar man approaches the baby when sitting in front of the mother, talks to the baby for 30 seconds, and then picks the baby up for 30 seconds.
Parental quality was measured at 12 months by observing the play session and scoring for parental responsiveness, intrusiveness, warmth and negativity.
Zeegers MAJ, de Vente W, Nikolić M, Majdandžić M, Bögels SM & Colonnesi C (2018), Mothers’ and fathers’ mind-mindedness influences physiological emotion regulation of infants across the first year of life, Developmental Science 21.6