Understanding Parents’ Role in Their Child’s Conceptualization of Self and Relationships

What kind of “Me” maps, “You” maps, and “We” maps are children developing with their parents and families?

Daniel Siegel (2011) refers to the neurobiological roots of our conceptualization of self, others, and relationships as “me” maps, “you” maps, and “we” maps. These neurobiological “maps” are based on our early relationship experiences, most importantly our attachment relationships. It’s my belief that our sibling relationship relationships also play an important role in our development of these maps. Initially, our maps are developed via our experiences with parents (caregivers) and then others in our lives as we grow and develop throughout our lives.

One of the fundamental aspects of Siegel’s (2011) Mindsight theory involves understanding the mind which is the underpinning of our maps. He refers to the mind as the flow of energy and information. According to Siegel (2011),

“the mind observes information and energy flow and then shapes the characteristics, patterns, and direction of the flow. Each of us has a unique mind: unique thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, beliefs, and attitudes, and a unique set of regulatory patterns. These patterns shape the flow of energy and information inside us, and we share them with other minds” (p. 54).

Think about your young clients and their parents – what’s a typical “map” that you see? For example – when working with a child with significant anxiety, the child’s worry is that the world is not safe. If their parents are anxious, a potential map created between parent and child is one that seeks to determine these questions: “Can I be safe?” and “Can I use my parent to keep me safe?”  Children may worry about parents rejecting them. They may believe “I’m bad, and I view my parent as rejecting me so I must be bad.”  Recognizing these maps can help mental health professionals better understand and identify how and where to intervene once we identify them.

Attachment relationships begin to from the moment of our birth.

This brings us to attachment and its connection with our sense of self, others, and relationships. Attachment relationships begin from the moment of our birth. It can be argued that our attachment relationships begin in utero since the developing child is exposed to a variety of influences in utero, such as stress, substances, peaceful state of the mother, and parents begin forming their bond with the unborn child while the child is in the womb. Physiologically mother and baby are attached. In addition to attachment styles, there are a variety of ways that I examine attachment relationships, such as the interpersonal neurobiology aspect of relationships, the attachment concept of internal working models, and mentalization (also referred to as reflective functioning).

Beware – I’m about to nerd out on you here. Let’s look at three aspects of attachment relationships one at a time and then I’ll tie them all together at the end.

Internal working models is a concept central to attachment theory to provide a way to understand the inner workings of relationships and the way in which each individual develops an understanding of self, others, and relationships. Marrone (2014) states “working models are cognitive maps, representations, schemes, or scripts that an individual has about himself (as a unique bodily and psychic entity) and his environment” (p. 79). These working models help us to navigate a complex social world.

We can have several internal working models that co-exist which makes sense when you think about the complexity of people. We are not one-dimensional beings – all good or all bad so to speak. Our sense of sense and our understanding of others is complex. Marrone (2014) states our co-existing internal working models of ourselves and of others “can remain split off from each other or can be put together through integrative and synthetic processes” (p. 79). Ultimately, our goal is to develop an integrated sense of self and an understanding the people are complex to avoid a “black and white” view of ourselves and others as “all good” or “all bad.”

Throughout our development, we use past conceptualizations to help us make predictions for current and future situations, then adjust them as needed.

As children grow their understanding of themselves, others, and navigating social nuances will evolve as their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical capacities develop. Throughout our development, we use past conceptualizations to help us make predictions for current and future situations, then adjust them as needed. These internal working models of ourselves and others help us on our journey through life. Once working models are formed, they operate out of our conscious awareness. (Marrone, 2014).

Another construct to understand the development of our sense of self, others, and relationships is mentalization, also referred to as reflective functioning. What is mentalization, or reflective functioning? Mentalization is both neurologically-based (think interpersonal neurobiology here) and perceptual and psychological, such as the way in which our mind makes sense of things and their impact in our life. According to Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Moran, and Higgitt (1991), there are two aspects to the self – the pre-reflective self and the reflective self. The pre-reflective self is the self that essentially experiences the events, situations, and interactions of everyday life. The reflective self is the part of ourselves that reflects upon and makes sense of what the self experiences, such as emotions, thoughts, perceptions, reactions, desires, and beliefs. “Mentalizing is the capacity to understand ourselves and others in terms of intentional mental states, such as feelings, desires, wishes, attitudes, and goals” (Luyten and Fonagy, 2015, p. 366). We need these capacities to navigate a complex social world, and they are heavily dependent upon our experiences. You can see the overlap between this construct and the construct of internal working models.

Now, let’s examine the neurobiology of attachment experiences. You’ve probably heard the saying – what fires together wires together. The neural circuitry activated and used over and over becomes strengthened without discrimination about whether or not these neural connections are helpful or not helpful. The neural connections not used will be “pruned” without distinction as to whether or not these neural connections need to be strengthened or pruned. If they’re not used, then they’re pruned.

Perry, Pollard, Blakely, Baker, and Vigilante (1995) describe the process of the way in which states become traits via the pruning process of neural pathways. As we take in information via our sensing circuits, this information becomes the basis for creating

“internal representations of the external world (i.e. information) depends upon the pattern, processing, and storing signals. The more frequently a certain pattern of neural activation occurs, the more indelible the internal representation. Experience thus creates a processing template through which all new input is filtered” (p. 275).

One metaphor to understand the interaction between parents and their children in an attachment relationship is a tennis game, i.e. the “serve” and “return” (also known as “volley”). Here’s how that works in a very simplistic example:

  • Child cries (serve – “come help me!”)
  • Mother goes to child and assesses the need and attempts to soothe the child (return – mother responds to child’s efforts to elicit a response)
  • Mother addresses the need and smiles, comforts, engages with the child (serve – “I’m here for you.” “You’re safe.” “I care about you.”)
  • Child responds by stopping his crying and returns smiles and attention to his mother. (return – “this is good.” “I like this.” He engages mother in the interaction.)

These experiences elicit neurological responses for emotion regulation, homeostasis for bodily functions, and our mind’s way of understanding myself, others, and the world. This is the interpersonal neurobiology aspect of attachment experiences.

So how does all of this influence our formulation of maps?

Family is our “learning laboratory” for how the world and relationships work which contribute to the creation of our internal working models

I’ve always viewed family as a “learning laboratory” for how the world and relationships work which contribute to the creation of our internal working models. Interactions between parent and child create the attachment relationship and influence our experiences of authority figures. Interactions between siblings and sibling dynamics can influence our experiences of peers and the ability to form strong peer relationships as well. The sibling dynamics can also influence how we view our parent’s ability to be equitable and maintain safety within the family system. Throughout childhood sibling relationships may change and/or grow because developmentally children are changing. The question I always ask myself when considering sibling relationships is – “how do parents maintain safety and equity within the family system and what are their relationship patterns with each of their children overall?” For example, how do parents account for individual differences in their children – is there a “favorite,” and how does that influence the relationship between the siblings? If there is a sibling who struggles with emotion regulation on a regular basis how do parents address that to maintain a sense of safety in the family for everyone, and how does that influence sibling relationships with that child?

Why does this matter and how is it related to our map-making of ourselves, others, and relationships? The attachment relationship is rooted in interpersonal neurobiology in which Siegel (2011) explains that humans meet mind to mind based on interpersonal neurobiology. This relationship circuitry is rooted in the resonance circuits which are heavily influenced by mirror neurons. As parents are attuned and connected with their child they act as co-regulators to help their child develop their neural circuitry for regulating emotions through the integration of various neural systems throughout the brain and body. Our mirror neurons based within our resonance circuitry also help us to make sense of the intentions of others and are key for developing empathy – the ability to understand others from their point-of-view not how we think they should experience the world. These mirror neurons are the key to helping us to feel “felt” and understood.

We use our resonance circuits to make maps of the intention of others, which influences our maps of relationships. Key in this process is to recognize my own internal states as separate and distinct from others. People with higher mentalization capacity are able to reflect upon their own internal states and experiences and recognize others as separate from their own experiences. People with lower mentalization capacity are less self-aware and able to distinguish their own internal states as separate from others.

Our experiences influence our beliefs about ourselves, others, and relationships influence the “stories” we believe about ourselves, others, and relationships. Am I good or bad or both? This will be heavily influenced by the way in which we interpreted the intention of our parents, as well as our siblings. Are other’s trustworthy and safe? How do relationships work?

What can we do as mental health professionals who work with children, youth, and families to help them become the heroes in their life journey? We are the “wise guides” for our clients and their families to become the heroes in their journey through life. As we establish strong therapeutic rapport with our clients and their families, we can help guide them and teach them important life skills. Using the therapeutic powers of play, we can explore the child’s mentalization about himself, others, and relationships and use the therapy process to adjust any cognitive distortions and increase self-awareness to help the child navigate life more effectively to develop increased windows of distress tolerance and resiliency. We can engage parents in the treatment process to increase the parent’s ability to examine their own mentalization for increased self-awareness and teach them how to more effectively support their child.


  • The neurobiology of relationships is rooted in the ways in our minds make sense of other minds and experiences one’s self.
  • Internal working models are based on our early experiences that influence the ways in which we make sense of ourselves, others, and relationships.
  • Mentalization is another way in which I conceptualize internal working models and is heavily influenced by our mirror neuron circuitry.
  • Our resonance circuits are heavily influenced by mirror neurons and help us to make sense of the intentions of others and tune into others both emotionally and physiologically.
  • Our experiences influence our conceptualization of ourselves, others, and relationships. These early experiences are stored away in memory and will influence our responses and capacity for relationships and navigating the social world.
  • Using the therapeutic powers of play can help children develop a positive sense of self and resiliency. Therapists can help parents engage in the treatment process to help their child.

Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families? Download the Be 5 Framework for using intention and therapeutic presence using play therapy based on neuroscience.


Fonagy, P., Steele, M., Steele, H., Moran, G. S., and Higgitt, A. C. (1991). The capacity for understanding mental states: The reflective self in parent and child and its significance for security in attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 12(3), 201-218.

Luyten, P., and Fonagy, P. (2015). The neurobiology of mentalizing. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 6(4), 366-379. doi.10.1037/per0000117

Marrone, M. (2014). Attachment and interaction: From Bowlby to current clinical theory and practice (2nd ed.). London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.

Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Categories: Neuroscience of attachment