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Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children – Mentalization

Last updated on December 10th, 2017 at 05:27 pm

Raising emotionally intelligent children can be a daunting task. But it is one of the most critical parenting skill which facilitates emotional expressions, deepens connections with others, and improves the overall social experience. Continuing with our earlier article on Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, we were able to connect with Mirel Goldstein, MS, MA, LPC. Mirel is a psychotherapist; author and has taught many classes on parenting and regularly writes on the topic as well.

Is Mentalization the Key to Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children?

Many experts believe it is!

We all want our children to be emotionally healthy, but for some people, this comes more naturally than for others. Some children seem to know almost automatically how to manage their emotions, express their feelings, talk themselves through frustration, and read other people well; others find this less natural. But there are many things that a parent can do to facilitate emotional intelligence in their child, no matter the child’s inborn temperament.

An Introduction to Mentalization – The key to Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

Mentalization is a complicated topic involving many technical terms that are central to healthy relationship skills, such as secure attachment, emotion regulation, reflective function, and theory of mind. Because it’s so important, I try to break it down a little into simpler terms so parents can understand the concepts involved.

So the first thing I like to help parents understand is the difference between mental states and external reality. In a way, this is about the subjective vs. the objective.

The difference between Mental States and External Reality

Mental states are those invisible, subjective frames of mind that exist inside of us and are invisible to others. These are things like our beliefs, feelings, ideas, fantasies, guesses, wishes, etc. It’s the stuff that goes on inside of our minds, hearts, and imagination- and other people only get to know about it if we decide to share it with them, either through words or behaviors. These things are private to us, and even if we choose to share them, we cannot make another person understand them 100 % accurately. We can only help them make a good guess.

For example, if you feel scared about something, you can’t show me what the fear looks like or sounds like, and convey with 100% accuracy what the fear feels like the inside of you. You can only try you best to explain it and hope the other person gets a good enough “idea” in their mind about what you mean. And even if you think you have explained yourself well, the other person still may not understand what you meant.

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

Concrete things in the external world outside of us are different (this is what I have called “external reality”). These are things that others can observe directly, like our behaviors and the material things out there in the world. Most people agree about their shared perceptions of the concrete. For example, if you are wearing a red dress, most objective onlookers would agree that the dress is red.

Mental states and Physical Realities

Mental states and physical realities are often connected; we express and describe our mental states through behaviors and things. We make guesses about other peoples’ mental states based on what we can observe. However, they are not the same. Your child may smile even when he’s feeling sad inside. Perhaps he wants to hide that he is sad from you. Maybe he sees that you are sad and trying to cheer you up. Just because he looks happy by his behavior, doesn’t automatically mean this matches up to what he feels inside.

Okay, so let’s put this difference between the invisible things that happen inside of us and the behaviors and concrete things that exist outside of us, aside for a moment.

The Reflective Mode and the Reactive Mode

The next step is understanding the difference between what I call reflective mode and that which I call reactive mode. I will start with an example to illustrate what I mean. Okay, so suppose there is a fire in your house. In reactive mode, you go into fight or flight and immediately do something to react to the situation. You use a behavior to get the situation under control. The first step is action, before thinking. Maybe it’s calling 911, or getting the fire extinguisher, or jumping out the window. This is reactive mode. It’s action before thought. The reactive mode is entirely appropriate in situations of physical danger. If you child is running into the street, you immediately do something about this to keep him safe. You don’t think, you react.

Reflective mode means thinking before acting. This applies to situations in which there is no actual danger. Situations that don’t require emergency responses are usually best responded to thoughtfully. If your child comes home with a bad grade on a math test, there is no actual threat or physical danger. There is time to think. In this case, it is best to think before acting, so that you don’t make an impulsive mistake that can hurt your child or misunderstand what kind of reaction is needed.

The reflective mode is much slower than reactive mode. Again, in the reactive mode we act before we think. In the reflective mode, we think before we act. Reactive mode is fast; it’s about our reflexes. Reflective mode is slower compared to the reactive mode; it’s about thinking things through first.

The key to helping your child develop good emotional intelligence and mentalization skills is to make sure that you use each mode at the appropriate times.

The most important thing is not to be in reactive mode when your child is communicating with you, behaving in ways that are not a safety problem, or expressing his feelings. Reactive mode is okay when someone is physically hurt or when safety is at risk, but in situations of physical safety, it’s important to slow down and be reflective.

So the first thing is knowing the difference between situations that call for reactivity and those that call for reflection. This may sound easy, but believe me, at the moment it is not! When emotions are high, our nervous systems start to hijack us and put us in reactive mode. We have to do some work to re-route ourselves back to a reflective attitude. The first step is awareness, noticing our emotions and that even though we feel like we’re in an emergency situation, we’re not.

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children Should you react or reflect

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

The second step is realizing that we don’t know what the right reaction is until we get more information. Behaviors do not tell us exactly what is going on inside of our child or what is motivating him or her. So it’s hard to know how to respond without gathering more data. I call this detective mode. It’s about trying to understand really what is going on inside your child and to make a connection between their behavior and the inner mental states.

The Detective Mode in Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children – to understand really what is going on inside your child and to make a connection between their behavior and the inner mental states.

Now, your brain will try to trick you if you’re feeling strong emotions. You will think that you know for sure what your child’s behavior means and how to respond to it. Your son didn’t clean up his room, and you feel a rush of anger, so you say to yourself “he’s such a lazy child!”. You don’t slow down to consider the possibilities and go into detective mode. Perhaps he’s not lazy, but he’s tired, or angry about something else, or unsure of how to get the room cleaned, or overwhelmed by the task? Detective mode put on your detective hat! Because if you don’t get yourself into the reflective mode and do some detective work, you may never know. And you may say or do something that will make the problem worse, rather than be solving it.

There are many more examples I can give. Your 3-year-old says “I hate you!”. Should you react or reflect? Your ten year old feels rejected because he wasn’t picked for the team. Should you react or reflect?

Emotion regulation is all about being able to think even when we feel very strong emotions.

It’s about learning to ask questions and talk about what’s going on inside a person, before reacting to what we see in their behavior or on the outside. Ask questions first, and then come up with a reaction. If there is physical safety, there is time to do this. It may be harder in the short-term, but it’s better for the long-term. For some parents, this is easy, and for others it takes work. Therapy can help if you need help working on this skill.

The Idea of Marked Contingent Mirroring in Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

There is one other concept that I think is crucial to helping our children become emotionally healthy. This is the idea of marked contingent mirroring. This comes from the “social biofeedback theory of affect regulation”. The punchline seems to be that when we respond to our children’s emotions, it is a particular type of feedback that is most helpful to the child. Typically, the ideal response is one that shows our kids that we understand them, but that also expresses that we are not sharing their experience 100%.

For example, if your child falls down and starts to cry, it wouldn’t be helpful for you as the parent to start crying as well in sympathy. This would show your child that you understand his feelings. But it would also alarm your child and confuse him about who was the one who got hurt. The idea is to say something in a tone that will let your child know that you understand, but that you are also not so upset yourself. Such as “Oh, my! You fell and got so scared! Come here and I will help you”.

About the Author of “Is Mentalization the Key to Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children?” – Mirel Goldstein, MS, MA, LPC


Mirel-Goldstein- Is Mentalization the Key to raising Emotionally Intelligent Children


Mirel Goldstein, MS, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist, mother, and blogger in Northern New Jersey. Mirel maintains her private psychotherapy practice in addition to her responsibilities as a college teacher, author, and popular lecturer. She is the former online training administrator for the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Mirel authored the novel “What Your Therapist is Really Thinking”. She is also a past recipient of an award for her clinical work by the New Jersey Association for Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. Mirel has taught many classes on parenting and regularly writes on the topic as well.You connect with her by visiting her parenting blog,, where she discusses more about mentalization and parenting, as well as why it’s so important not to use hitting for discipline. Feel free to contact her at with any questions you may have!

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Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children - Mentalization
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Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children - Mentalization
Is Mentalization the key to raising emotionally intelligent children? Many experts believe it is! - An article by Mirel Goldstein, MS, MA, LPC.
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    Sharyn Monroe

    August 15, 2016

    Mirel, your mother sent this link to me for my daughter. I read it also. The detective part I need/ed to do more often. I end up in reactive too automatically in too many situations. ~.~ Thanks for writing! Sharyn Monroe

    Mirel goldstein

    August 16, 2016

    Thanks for reading and good luck with it!

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