The Assessment of Relational Risk in Early Parent-Infant Relationships

  • Research Project Team

    Michelle Sleed

    Supervisors: Peter Fonagy, Pasco Fearon


  • Background

    This thesis provided an in-depth methodological study of the assessment of risk in early parent-infant relationships via caregivers’ representations of their infant and their relationship with them.

  • Aims

    Evaluation of several methods for assessing the quality parent-infant relationships Development and evaluation of a newly developed coding system for assessing risk in parents’ representations of their relationship with their infant: the Assessment of Representational Risk (ARR)

  • Methodology

    Three approaches to the assessment of relational risk were examined in detail: parent-report questionnaires, parental Reflective Functioning (RF), and a newly developed coding system for assessing risk in parents’ representations of their relationship with their infant: the Assessment of Representational Risk (ARR). The validity and reliability of these measures were investigated in high- and low-risk parent-infant samples in relation to socio-demographic factors, parental psychopathology, adult attachment, and parent-infant interactions.

  • Results

    Parent-report methods were found to be problematic for the assessment of parent-infant relationships in clinical samples. Mothers’ ratings of their infants were strongly related to their own level of distress and unrelated to observer or clinician ratings of infant interactive behaviour. The Reflective Functioning and ARR coding systems, both of which are applied to parents’ narratives about their relationship with their babies in semi-structured interviews, provided meaningful, reliable and valid tools for assessing the quality of the parent-infant relationship in various ways.

    The ARR identified three typologies of parental representations of the parent-infant relationship that may impinge on the parent-infant relationship: Hostile, Helpless and Narcissistic. These representations modified the prediction of later parent-infant interaction from parental reflective functioning and adult attachment style. The Assessment of Representational Risk is an easily accessible new tool for parent-infant assessments that provided a useful adjunct to the RF coding system. The methodological, theoretical and clinical implications of the findings were discussed.


The Centre is taking action to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Our physical sites are now closed but we are still at work, with all staff working remotely. Find out more about our training and services and our support for children, young people, their families, and schools and colleges.  

Contact Us

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We’d also like to set optional analytics to help us improve it. We won’t set optional cookies unless you enable them. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookies page

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We’d like to set non-essential cookies, such as Google Analytics, to help us to improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone. For more information on how these cookies work, please see our Cookies page. If you are 16 or under, please ask a parent or carer for consent before accepting.