The development and implementation of a mentalizing intervention for foster parents

  • Research Project Team

    • Tina Adkins,
    • Peter Fonagy
    • Patrick Luyten


    • Julia Badger,
    • Sophie Bammens


  • Background

    Mentalization-based interventions show promise in improving mental health outcomes for children and parents through increasing a family’s ability to mentalize. Mentalization or reflective functioning typically develops within the context of a secure, attached relationship and involves the ability to understand behavior in relation to mental states such as thoughts and feelings. Longitudinally, the failure to mentalize has been linked with mental health disorders and unsuccessful interpersonal relationships. In fact, mentalization might be a key factor responsible for the intergenerational transmission of attachment. (Allen, Fonagy & Bateman, 2008).

    One area not given much consideration when recruiting or training foster parents is their state of mind regarding attachment or their capacity to mentalize. Those parents with insecure or unresolved states of mind are more likely to be triggered negatively by their foster children’s attachment needs and behaviors (Howe, 2006). As a result, this will likely activate childhood anxieties, traumas and defenses of these foster parents. Unfortunately, this prevents them from being able to successfully attune to their foster child and challenges their sensitivity. Increasing foster parents’ mentalizing abilities could not only help the parents themselves cope with the stress of fostering, but it could increase their foster children’s mentalizing abilities, which could positively impact their behavior and mental health.

  • Aims

    • Develop a psycho-education mentalizing intervention for foster and adoptive parents
    • Implement and evaluate intervention with foster and adoptive parents in U.S.
    • Increase parents reflective functioning and mentalizing skills
    • Decrease parental stress
  • Methodology

    Fifty-two foster parents in Central Texas received the intervention and 48 received a typical training as a comparison.

    Data were collected both pre and post training for both groups, measuring reflective functioning and parenting stress. Measures included the Five-Minute Speech Sample (FMSS) coded for Reflective Functioning (RF), the Parental Reflective Functioning Questionnaire (PRFQ) and the Parenting Stress Index (PSI).

  • Results

    • Results from the multivariate an analysis indicate there were significant differences between the groups post training, with the intervention parents’ significantly increasing their reflective capacities and lowering their parenting stress, while the comparison group did not show any such improvements.
    • These findings support the notion that a short-term psycho-educational intervention can indeed increase a foster parent’s ability to mentalize themselves as well as their children. In particular, foster parents increased their curiosity about mental states.
    • This skill requires an interest in another’s thoughts and feelings, and includes a tendency to refrain from making assumptions about another’s feelings or behaviors (Asen & Fonagy, 2011). This specific mentalizing skill is very beneficial for foster parents, as they frequently deal with children who come into their home with challenging behaviors, attachment issues and negative internal working models of relationships.
    • A foster parent who has a strong curiosity about mental states will be less likely to jump to conclusions about their foster children’s negative behaviors, less likely to assume negative intentions to those behaviors and will be more likely to interact with them in a therapeutic manner or in way that prevents triggering reactions related to previous traumas.