Caregiving Sensitivity and Mind-Minded Parenting
By Alejandra Hudon
Caregiving sensitivity is the ability to recognize a child’s signals and needs, and to respond in a way that is timely and accurate to the emotional experience of the child.
Warmth, attunement and acceptance are important qualities in a sensitive caregiver, but one other thing is crucial: recognizing the uniqueness of each child.
Research shows that parents’ ability to see each child as a unique individual -with a mind of their own, and with distinct emotional needs and experiences- is a strong predictor of attachment security (a child that is confident to explore the world age-appropriately, keeping him/herself safe, and knows that will be welcomed back to the parents’ care when needed), at one year of age as well as of the child’s later ability to empathize with other people’s mental states. This ability is called Mind-Mindedness.*
It is essential during early parenting to cultivate a growing sensitivity to the child’s unique set of experiences. This ability shapes the way children understand their own internal world and how sensitive they become to the experiences of others – the foundation of empathy.
Parents with a low mind-mindedness ability (seeing the child as a separate, unique individual) tend to view their child more concretely in terms of needs and behaviors (more like a living set of never-ending needs), or in terms of their own perspective (“you are just being fussy”, “you just want to see me angry”). Parents with a high mind-mindedness ability naturally make more comments on their child’s interests, desires, feelings, and beliefs during their interactions (“You just want that toy, don’t you?” or “this is making you so sad”)*
This natural ability can also be fostered, but in either case a basic experience needs be in place: “To Be and To Feel Seen”. Just like the parents’ ability to see his or her child shapes the child’s later ability to do the same with others, parents first need to have had such an experience of being seen.
This isn’t referring to whether someone had a great childhood and felt totally understood and cared for, or in the opposite case, that if one didn’t have such an early experience one can’t offer it to one’s child. No. Seeing is a living experience that happens constantly. We see others; we are noticed; we have an impact on other’s people’s lives; others impact our lives; we have opinions; we hear opinions… The more I am seen and the more honesty and safety there is in this seeing, the more I will be able to see and notice what is outside of myself. The safer I feel when seen, the safer I can make others feel when I see them. The more supported I am when seen, the more support I can give when I see.
As parents engage on their daily task of caring for their children, they often feel less and less seen – by their partners, family, friends, co-workers… The growing sense of isolation in parenting is not widely talked about, but it is more common that any of us would think. The danger here is that this reality makes it in turn much harder for parents to have the space to see their children.
A way to gently and indirectly help families feel more open and relaxed in their parenting is by providing a loving, real look at their experiences. No need to be talking about feelings all the time. No need for words, really. Just a gentle look, a noticing, a comment on their efforts and the positive things we see them trying, a help that emerges from seeing and not from being asked…
* Extracted from the Handbook of Infant Mental Health, 3rd edition. Edited by Charles H. Zeanah, Jr. 2009.