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Reflective functioning refers “to the essential human capacity to understand behavior in light of underlying mental states,” whereby mental states encompass emotions, needs, intentions, and desires that can motivate behavior. The construct of reflective functioning emerged in the late 1980s, in an area of psychoanalysis adjacent to attachment theory, that is most concerned with the intergenerational transmission of attachment security. Reflective parenting, as explained by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, “is a model of parenting which focuses on the application of theoretical ideas from mentalization, attachment theory and reflective functioning in promoting positive outcomes for children’s emotional and behavioral wellbeing.” Parental reflective functioning is critical to parental sensitivity, attachment security, the development of the child’s own reflective functioning capacity, and consequently the child’s ability to regulate their emotions and navigate the social world.

Stability & Change

Research suggests that parental reflective functioning (PRF) which “is the capacity parents have to understand their own mental states and those of their children, as well as the influence of those mental states on behavior,” remains fairly stable over time. However, there are certain factors that can influence and change PRF (e.g., parental mental health, stress, trauma, social support, etc.). Further, in many cases it is advantageous to adapt PRF to accommodate the inevitable changes that shift throughout a child’s developmental growth. Both stability and change in parental reflective functioning are linked to the quality of parent-child attachment, which directly inform the parent-child relationship.


Research shows that parents with greater capacity for PRF are more likely to foster secure attachment with their children. There is empirical evidence that substantiates the formative interrelationships between attachment and child psychopathology, inflammation and health, neurobiology, school readiness and empathy, compassion, and altruism. Further, parental attachment is predictive of numerous developmental outcomes in children (e.g., general well-being, self-esteem, social competence with peers, problem-solving abilities, academic success, behavioral outcomes, resilience, etc.). Studies confirm that higher levels of PRF are associated with positive child outcomes, including enhanced social-emotional development (e.g., better emotion regulation, social skills, etc.), enriched cognitive development (e.g., heightened academic achievement), and scarcer behavioral problems. 

Further Information and Support

For most of us, life can be very stressful, leading us to feel emotionally charged, which can cause anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and getting stuck in a cycle of being burdened with negative thoughts. Navigating through the challenges and emotional turmoil of life can be overwhelming, but you do not have to go through it alone. Engage Treatment is a Joint Commission Accredited professional psychological practice. We specialize in treating children, teens, and young adults struggling with depression and anxiety through community-focused treatment plans that incorporate a carefully selected combination of therapeutic interventions. Our compassionate, multidisciplinary practitioners are devoted to providing the highest quality of care that helps ignite positive change and enables clients to reach optimal health and well-being. Please do not hesitate to reach out for guidance. We are happy to answer questions and provide you with any additional information. Feel free to call us at 805-497-0605 or email us at [email protected]. You are also welcomed to get in touch by filling out our contact form. We look forward to connecting and having the opportunity to discuss how we might best be able to support you.

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