PsychologiCALL

On boosting mind-mindedness, with Professor Liz Meins

August 11, 2020 SalvesenResearch Season 1 Episode 12
PsychologiCALL
On boosting mind-mindedness, with Professor Liz Meins
Show Notes Transcript

Elizabeth Meins has been studying how parents interact with their infants for 30 years. Her research has shown how “tuning in” to your child (so-called mind-mindedness) has a positive impact on parenting and children’s development. During this podcast she chats to Sue about her recent work in developing a smartphone app that has proved effective in boosting parents' mind-mindedness.

You can follow Elizabeth on twitter here.

The paper discussed in this episode is:
Larkin et al. (2019) Proof of concept of a smartphone app to support delivery of an intervention to facilitate mothers’ mind-mindedness. PLOS One, 14(8): e0220948

Sue:

[Podcast jingle] [ringtone] Hello? Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go. Hi, this is Sue from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and I'm recording another one of our PsychologiCALL podcasts , um, which is a kind of wee series that's trying to make a bit of an evidence-based contribution to conversations about child and adolescent development and wellbeing and learning, especially right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, when those seem like questions that people are super interested in. Um , so I'm excited today because I'm talking to Elizabeth Meins who's a professor at the University of York. So Liz and I were also at Durham at the same time, many years ago, which is fun. Um, and she's gonna be talking to me about some work she's done, looking at , um, developing or trialing a smartphone app to look at , um, supporting delivery of an intervention that was aiming to facilitate mind-mindedness in mothers. So we'll come onto what my mind-mindedness is in a moment, but , um, could you tell me Liz, first of all, hello! And what you discovered in your piece of research?

Liz:

Hi , um, well, it's in the title! So we developed a smartphone app, and lo and behold by getting parents just to engage with it. So there's a bit of psychoeducation everyday, ao they got some information on baby psychological development, and they also got an alert that prompted them to think about what's going on for their baby in terms of what they were thinking or feeling. And when we followed them up, those parents were more attuned to what their babies were thinking or feeling when they were actually interacting with them. So using quite a light touch thing, that's part of everyday life, so parents take photographs of their babies and post them on social media platforms and so on, we could actually intervene in a way that impacted on their parenting when they were actually interacting with their babies.

Sue:

Hmm... Fab! Um , so exciting isn't it, when you do some research that you feel is really making a difference in people's lives in that way. Um, so , um, why don't we start then in terms of sort of rewinding a little bit with the concept of mind-mindedness. So , um, could you give us a sort of , um, accessible definition of, of that idea?

Liz:

Yes, so it's parents' tendency to treat their babies or young children as individuals with minds of their own. So you, if your mind-minded, you might watch your baby doing something and then interpret their behaviour in terms of the internal states that are driving it. So what the baby likes, or wants, or is interested in, or doesn't like, or hates, or is bored by and so on and so on. So it's kind of taking it a step beyond just the behaviour you observe to work out what's, what the internal states of your baby are, that's driving that behaviour.

Sue:

And mind-mindedness is a relatively desirable characteristic for a parent, is it?

Liz:

Well in terms of it predicting good stuff about children's development yes it is. So we've done a lot of longterm longitudinal work now, and indeed people around the world have also done long term longitudinal stuff, which shows that parents who are more tuned and mind-minded in the first year of life, their kids have better outcomes, particularly regarding the children's own theory of mind abilities and emotion understanding. And so seems that if you had a mom who was a good mind reader , then you yourself become a better mind reader. So it's what , how, how that works? We're trying to, we're still try to work out the exact mechanisms, but certainly it's the case that there's a kind of contagion between your mother reading your mind, then you becoming able to read other people's minds.

Sue:

Um, and so what brought you to developing an app specifically? I mean, you were talking about it sort of fitting in with day to day life. Have you tried other ways of doing mind-mindedness interventions that have , um, been different in the past? Tell us a bit about that.

Liz:

Yes, so, well it took me a long time to be brave enough to try and to be... Given my scientific background [laugh] I didn't want to go and meddle in people's lives until I was sure that it was actually a good thing for them and their babies. Um , but the first kinds of intervention we did were actually with mothers who were hospitalized for severe mental illness. So they were in a mother and baby unit in London and we used a video feedback technique. So it worked very well, but it's obviously incredibly labor intensive and it has to be individualized to each particular mother and baby, and really we wanted to try and see if there was something that was much more scalable, that parents across the whole country or across the whole world might be able to benefit form. And, and very much we wanted it to be a kind of fun thing and part of everyday life, because, you know, parenting classes or parenting interventions just seem really punitive. And that, no matter how you talk about them, parents, I think we'll just worry that they're somehow being judged and having a bad parenting corrected and so on and so on. So we very much didn't want it to be like that. We just wanted it to be something that was, you know, commonplace and fun to use. But if it did turn out that you could , um, get beneficial effects from it, then that would be fab. Um, and remarkably, [laughing] we found that it did, does seem to have a positive impact on their actual parenting.

Sue:

So what kind of , um , outcomes are you measuring , um, you know, with this kind of proof of concept work or , or, or what kind of outcomes might you be measuring in a sort of, you know , larger scale or more longitudinal , um, future development from this?

Liz:

So, so the proof of concept paper with just basically demonstrating that it did impact on my mind-edness. So the group of mothers who hadn't had our app were less mind-minded than the group of mothers who had had our app, but we were following up this sample subsequently. So when looking at other outcome measures that in the past, we identified as being predicted by mind-mindedness. So things, as I said, like kids' theory of mind, but also attachment security. And we're interested as well, this time around in children's emotional and behavioral regulation. So , um, we don't have the data yet, but sometime in the future, we'll be able to establish, you know, what the pathways are, and whether or not the people who had the app, the children's development is actually different from the people who didn't have the app.

Sue:

And is your feeling with this... So the concept of , of critical windows of development, right? It's not something that every psychologist I think subscribes to, but is your feeling that there's a sort of optimal developmental stage for parents to be thinking about mind-mindedness in the way that they're interacting with their children? Is it something that, you know, you really need to be , um, influencing in the very early years or what , what are your thoughts about that?

Liz:

I think I'm much more optimistic about "it's never too late", you know, and we have found that it's what mothers are doing in the first year of life, but I don't think you could ever say "it's too late to try and tune into your child". So I think different people sometimes find different stages of their troubles development, easier or more difficult. And so some people might, you know , intuitively be able to interact really successfully with a pre-verbal baby, and they might find, you know, toddlers and preschoolers more difficult, and other people that would be the other way around. So we have found some kind of longitudinal continuity in that people who tend to be able to accurately read their babies , internal states, then go on to represent their children in the later years in terms of their thoughts and feelings. So there's some kind of longitudinal stability. But equally, you know, there's variation too. So I don't think it's ever too late to try and put yourself in your child's shoes and see the world from your child's perspectives. And, you know, once you get to having teenagers and so on , I think it's still important then. And it might be that, you know, don't then say, "well, I know what you want, and I'm going to give it to you", but at least your child knows that you can kind of represent what they're thinking and feeling, and see the world from their perspective. I think that's always going to be a good thing , um, for , for sort of smoothing out the bumps in relationships and interactions.

Sue:

And have you done work on this , um, with kind of particular populations as well? You know, so you mentioned, obviously you've done work with mothers who were , um, experiencing kind of mental ill health. Um, but I wonder about sort of maybe groups of children that we might think of as more vulnerable. Do you think this is something that's relevant for those groups? Something we should be thinking about?

Liz:

Yes, it's interesting, I mean we... We primarily just looked at biological moms , um , and to some extent dads as well, and we get the same kinds of patterns with fathers as we do with mothers. Um, but people are increasingly looking at other groups. So there's some , um, of my colleagues in the Netherlands for example, are looking at adoptive parents. And I had a PhD student, Sarah Fishburn, a few years back, who looked at foster carers and adoptive parents. Um, and also biological parents whose children were under child protection plans. So these were parents where there were concerns about abuse or neglect, but weren't severe enough to have the child taken into care. And in all of those groups of , um , parents and carers when you ask them to describe their child, they were less mind-minded. So they were less focused on the child's , um, you know, mental characteristics or emotional characteristics or ambitions and intentions than biological parents, which was kind of fascinating.

Sue:

And then, and then, so I'm just going to ask one more question. Sorry. I could go on forever, but I guess I'm curious as well about, about practitioners, you know. So thinking about , um, teachers , um, or , um, you know, professionals in social care, for example, as well. Um, is there any evidence that, you know, for example, teachers exhibiting mind-mindedness towards their pupils is beneficial. Is that something you've looked at?

Liz:

No, but , but people are interested in that. I find some people I met at the conference once were going to look at teachers and I don't know if they've ever done it or what they found. But often when I've given talks, people who are in kind of more applied practices of psychology, was- would say, actually it would be just as important for... in a nursing staff, or these kinds of staff, should actually have that with their clients. And I actually did some... I was asked to do some training for health visitor in North Yorkshire a couple of years ago. And basically they wanted some training on how to support parents to be more attuned and mind-minded with their babies. But interestingly, when we had the sort of... We had a feedback session to ask them how they'd use the training in their professional practice. And a lot of them said "actually I found myself being more mind-minded with the clients"!

Sue:

Right, right!

Liz:

So almost like just, just learning about this stuff, just gave them an insight into taking other people's mental perspective. And they felt that they had a slightly different approach to the mums they would go and visit just after birth and that kind of thing . That's interesting.

Sue:

Yeah, that really is interesting, isn't it? I think you're right. You know, it's, it's , uh, it's hard to imagine a situation where making a bit of an effort to see someone else's point of view would not, would not improve that situation, right? So we could all do more of that in our, in our daily lives. Couldn't we?

Liz:

Yes. Yeah. And you kind of, you know, couples therapy, I think probably a lot of bad things it's about not always jumping to the, you know, the bad conclusion about why somebody is doing something or having these kinds of, you know , stereotypical representations of "somebody is always doing X, Y or Z, or always feeling X, Y, Z."

Sue:

Yeah... Oh , such a great concept. Um, so we should finish though, because we're trying very hard to be bite-sized in this podcast though. I always get carried away. Um, but I did want to ask you before we wrap up , um, if you had any kind of thoughts for early career researchers or PhD students who might be listening, who are obviously a bit cut off from their usual sources of , um, of wisdom, and maybe we can help them out with a little bit of wisdom?

Liz:

Yeah. I mean, it- I suppose we're all learning new skills, which is one really important thing to do. And certainly my own research team, we've moved all of our testing online, and are testing families in their homes. So my own postdocs and RAs have become really skilled at testing in entirely different ways and making you know, tasks , um, in online versions to, to tap into the same construct. So that that's something that I think they've really enjoyed in the end, even though at the outset, it was a bit daunting. Um, but other people I've been talking to as well say they'd been thinking much more about, you know , kind of how they can do stuff in the real world to help. I think this whole pandemic is really, in some ways, made people who are kind of working, you know... Pure research is... feels a bit self-indulgent I sometimes feel, you know [laughs], but what I do is not all that much use to somebody or potentially not all that much use to some people. So I've had a number of chats with, u m, ECRs who are saying, they're wanting to diversify, or they're wanting more to think about, you know , how they could have real world applications for their research. And so, you know, that's a really helpful thing. And I think nowadays impact is much more recognized as an important component of research rather than, you know, just something else we happen to do. So, u m, hopefully that will cement those sorts of practical applications and, you know, people being able to use that psychological knowledge, u m, out in the real world, u m, are more successful .

Sue:

Yeah. Yeah. That is a great thought, actually, and I am, I am , I'm a kind of incurable optimist, and I am really enjoying thinking about the silver linings from the pandemic, you know, in the ways that we're being forced to reconsider some of, of how we do things and why we do things, you know, it's... I hope that we'll emerge as a kind of society a little bit, you know, like , like you've turned it off and on again or something, you know. [Laughs] We've rebooted! [ laughs].

Liz:

Yeah, and you know, it's a beautiful natural experiment, in that no one would have been brave enough to do something so radical. And yet, I mean, obviously there's a lot of families who are really struggling and are in very, very difficult circumstances, but I am kind of hopeful that a lot of families might have just found new ways to connect and be together and got enough understanding of the different family members. And it'd be really nice to think that those sorts of positives, whatever they might be of you know, the isolation and the lockdown can somehow be maintained as things ease up.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely completely agree. Um, well thank you a huge amount for your time Liz, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to you! Um, for anyone who's listening, you'll be able to find out more about Liz's work by following the links on the podcast page, which is at ed .ac. uk/salvesen-research. Thank you very much, Liz again and goodbye.

Liz:

Bye! [ringtone]

Sue:

Okay we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly! [Podcast jingle]