- Sue Fairbanks
One of the ways to significantly impact the mental health and development of foster children is to give them caregivers who have the traits that generate secure attachment in children. Secure attachment has been linked to higher IQ, positive mental health and successful relationships as a child ages. Research has shown that a significant way for parents to create secure attachments with children is through their ability to mentalize. Mentalization, or reflective functioning, develops within the context of a secure attachment relationship and involves the ability to understand behavior in relation to mental states such as thoughts and feelings. Mentalization allows a parent to see the deeper meaning behind a child’s behavior, which then positively influences the way a parent then responds that child, increasing the likelihood that the parent will ultimately meet that child’s deeper emotional need which can both reduce the behavior problem and increase attachment.
One factor not given much consideration when training foster parents in the Unite States is their mentalizing skills. Foster parents who are poor mentalizers are more likely to be triggered negatively by their foster children’s needs and behaviors. 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. Maltreated children who are placed with such foster parents have an increased risk of placement breakdown. Ensuring foster parents have such skills is especially relevant given that maltreated children who have been removed from their homes display higher rates of insecure attachment, emotional and behavioral challenges, relationship problems and poor social skills. Having a parent who is good at mentalizing can help prevent such issues in children and is thought to be a protective factor.
Family Minds is a cost effective, short-term, psycho-educational training intervention developed specifically for foster and adoptive parents and designed to increase their ability to mentalize and be therapeutic with their children. Family Minds was evaluated in 2014 as part of a project at University College London and the Anna Freud Center, and results were very promising.
This research project aims to increasing the evidence-base for Family Minds for foster parents, while also promoting psychoanalytic research within the field of social work through the establishment of the Fairbanks Psychoanalytic Research Collaboration within the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing at the UT Austin School of Social Work.
The overall project will be a randomized control trial (RCT) of Family Minds. To pursue this project, the research team will utilize participants from the foster care agency Upbring, with whom the institute collaborates.
In addition, the team will be conducting an online survey of social workers to identify professional development needs and social work knowledge of psychoanalytic theory and practice.To foster dissemination of information, various professional development opportunities will be offered to the social work field, and a strategic communications and dissemination plan will be created by Dr. Tina Adkins and the communication coordinator at the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing.
Results from this study will build evidence to categorize Family Minds as an “Evidenced-based Practice” or EBP. As of present, there is no known psychoedcation intervention shown to increase parental mentalization, particularly for foster and adoptive parents. If successful, this will be the first intervention of its kind and could significantly add to the under researched area related to foster parents and child outcomes. Additionally, the overall project will increase the knowledge of psychoanalytic theory in the field of social work,