Reflective Functioning and Relational Trust

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another”. Thomas Merton

Our ability to both experience and understand our self and others is a key component in building secure (emotionally safe) relationships. This ability is known as reflective functioning or mentalizing and is a core determinant in the level of trust we will provide and experience in our relationships.

Our capacity to engage in reflective functioning (known as reflective capacity) comes from our own early experiences with trust in our primary relationships. The capacity to reflect on how one experiences the relationship and to simaltaneously consider (from a place of empathy) how the other experiences the relationship is a (if not the) determining factor in building trust.

Attachment research tells us that trust, in our early years, is essential in developing the sense of belonging that will eventually lead to our sense of autonomy and self efficacy in the larger world. When working with both individuals and families the assessment, development, and provision of opportunities to increase reflective capacity is a primary area of work.

When we truly listen to the other(s) they feel heard (seen, experienced, understood) and this in turn allows trust (in self and other) to grow. While the concept of building trust through empathetic listening and responding sounds easy; true attunement can be quite difficult.

This can be a place of struggle. (I can certainly say, I have and do still struggle at times). To truly engage in reflective functioning we must be aware of what we think, feel, need, and attune to the other persons thoughts, feelings, and needs. Further we must be able (and willing) to do this while allowing their expression (barring abusive behavior) and remain open, curious, and attentive. In addition, we need to do this while taking ownership of places we have hurt them and (at the right time) share how they may have hurt us. This will ideally allow for mutual problem solving or future planning to improve our next interactions.

We all have a differing level of comfort in this area. For some it is very difficult to hear the other person when they (themselves) feel they have something important to say. For others it is difficult to identify their thoughts and feelings, and even more difficult to identify and share or assert a need. Still others have difficulty owning mistakes. While others appear to believe they are responsible for most things that go wrong in their relationships. And, of course there are many places between these extreme ends of the continuum.

It’s a tall order to remain aware of both self and other in this way. We will of course misstep at times. This said, one of the most wonderful parts of human relationship is there is generally a way to repair the inevitable misstep. This can most often occur if we are willing to take responsibility for our mistake(s).

In working with attachment based parenting, the process involves helping parents hear what their child is working to convey through both words and actions. Parents are asked to consider their child’s developmental capacity, emotional regulation skills, the early learning (within their primary relationships) and the need underneath the words and actions. We further ask (and ideally assist parents ) in developing or optimizing their own reflective capacities. This occurs through willingness and ability to self reflect.

It is important to recognize there are many different care-giver to child relationships. These can include, and are not limited to, biological family systems, step parenting, kinship care, foster, foster adopt, adoption, and extended family systems. Each of these bring particular dynamics and a varied number of personal experiences regarding trust in relationship.

As noted above, trust is developed in our early experiences. It is said, to the degree that we have experienced emotional regulation in our child hoods (leading to trust) this is the degree that we will (without deeper exploration and awareness) be able to provide co- regulation to our children and in our adult relationships.

In working to truly hear others we must place their need in the forefront of our mind during interactions and reflections. To achieve this, parents (and non-parents seeking to understand themselves in relationship) are supported in seeing the other by moving themselves out of the way (so to speak). To do this, we must first become aware of how (this often includes a compassionate look at the “Why” as well) we are blocking our own path and make a conscious choice to override our blocking belief or procedural script.

Blocking our own path toward deeper relationship isn’t intentional. It is largely hidden from our own view and, as noted, is rooted in our early experiences with trust. It is important that we understand this in order to become intentional in our relational interactions. Who among us, wouldn’t say they want to experience “better” relationship? Most of us, understandably not all, although this is also multilayered and a post for another time (would agree that improved connection (in whatever way we identify this ) is preferable.

To achieve this, we must take a look at the places the belief was born and how it was reinforced. This is often a painful process. As discussed, here on Perspective on Trauma, many times this does not mean we have all experienced deep traumas. Though this may certainly be the case for some. A 2016 study by Washington University, confirms that 1 of every 3 children in the United States will experience at least one traumatic event prior to their 18th birthdays. We also know many traumatic incidents go unreported and trauma, for many, is cumulative in nature. This said, many experience what are termed attachment wounds.

Attachment wounding is largely unintentional. Please note this does note imply that all traumatic events are intentional. This again is a subject for another article. Attachment wounds occur due to our caregivers own early histories and their procedural scripts or imprinted learning.

Becoming aware of what triggers our own automatic response is important. This occurs through review of our attachment relationships and how we have navigated historical traumas or attachment wounds. In reviewing ones history an area that can be difficult to understand is that our actual response (in the present) may be a repeat of how we were provided care or a variety of attempts to not repeat the painful past in our own relationships. This generally occurs as an over or under response to the others needs or even our own.

One example, might include a parent who grew up in a care-giver child relationship in which abuse did occur. This individual may find themselves having difficulty in holding their own child or children accountable. This can be understood as an effort to spare their own children pain, as well as avoiding their own painful memories, but is in fact an under response to the need for accountability and building self competency and future autonomy.

Yet another example may include a parent who grew in a parent-child relationship where all basic needs were met and safety was not an issue. Their caregiver may have often focused on tasks and chores missing opportunities for attunement in other moments. When the child achieved preferred grades, did their chores, and/or behaved in expected ways the parent provided praise or simply (without verbal of physical expression) felt and conveyed pride in the child. Possibly when the child was sad, angry, excited, etc. the parent didn’t truly notice. The focus was on achievement or following rules. Each time the Childs need or feelings weren’t acknowledged (left unmet) a wound grew. This, most often, would not have been an intentional process. It was a manifestation of the parents own attachment need. However, this left the child ill equipped to identify and manage emotions. This in turn shows up in parenting and adult relationships in any number of ways. Again, generally as avoidance at its core and as an over or under response) in and toward emotions and/or behavior) on the surface.

These wounding experiences become hardwired within our neurobiology (our brain and body). They occur as automatic and unintentional responses. Once aware, of our automatic pathway, we can then work to choose the desired response. The response that will meet our own child/children’s genuine needs. The need, so often, hidden under surface emotions and behaviors. Further this awareness allows us to listen and respond, without defense, in our adult relationships.

This as you may already know, or can imagine, is a great deal of work and also highly rewarding in its intended effects. The result of genuine self reflection is an improved sense of safety and security for both the individual, their children and/or adult relationships.

This of course requires time, and a commitment to look deeper at ones inner processes. This deeper look must include seeing both the places we hold in high value and those we turn away from. It is hard to reflect on traumatic incidents and/or attachment wounds. It is harder yet to unlayer the often complex set of emotions and resulting beliefs and behaviors. Because I am an attachment and trauma therapist, I do feel deeper reflective work is enhanced with the support of informed therapy and a well rounded approach to self care that includes all aspects of the self including emotional, mental/intellectual, physical (in all its forms) , relational, and spiritual.

I am always sensitive to the feelings of parents, in this process, and want to remind each of us that is it normative when reading articles on attachment and parenting to reflect on our own histories as children and on the parenting of our own children. As parents, just like ours before us, we are most often intentional in supporting our children. This proves true in defensive behavior as well. As noted often, on this web log, the research on attachment indicates that if we (as parents) show up in an attuned state (barring the existence of abusive behavior) we raise securely attached and well adjusted children. And, while its highly important to engage in reflective parenting its also important to remember this truth.

Overall, finding and knowing ones self, all of the self both hidden and seen, is one of the most important processes in healing. Further it supports, encourages, and allows room for those around us to do the same.

As always, I am hopeful you found something that speaks to you. I welcome your thoughts and insights.

Deepest Care,


Please see the resources section of this post for further reading and or supports.

Copyright Protected Material: © 2014-2022 LaDonna Remy MSW, LICSW. All rights reserved. Written content on this blog (Perspective on Trauma) is the property of the author LaDonna Remy, MSW, LICSW. Any unauthorized use or duplication without written permission of the author/ owner of this web log is prohibited. Excerpts or quotes may be shared in the event the author is fully cited with reference and direction to this blog.

Professional Disclaimer: It is important to recognize that all information contained in the Perspective on Trauma Blog is informational. It is not intended to provide advice, assessment, treatment, or diagnosis. Content is not intended as a substitute for clinical care. It is not possible to provide informed care through web content, or to engage in an informed treatment relationship within this format. If you or a loved one need support; it is important that you access this care from your own (specifically assigned) health care provider.

Agreement of Use: In consideration for your use of and access to the Perspective on Trauma Blog, you agree that LaDonna Remy MSW, LICSW is not liable to you for any action or non-action you may take in reliance upon information from the Perspective on Trauma blog. As noted, it is not possible to provide informed (personalized care) through blog content. In the event, support is needed it is your responsibility to seek care from your own health-care provider.

National Hotlines: 
Treatment Referral Helpline: (1-877-726-4727)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (1-800-273-8255)

Photo: Image found on Pixabay


Web Based Resources:

Schoenherr, Neil. (December 20, 2016) 1 in 3 Children Investigated for abuse /neglect by 18. Washington University in St Louis.

Circle of Security International Website and Resources .


Bowlby, John: ( 1998) A Secure Base. Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. Publisher Basic Books. N.Y.

Copper, Hoffman, Powell: (2017) Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom. The Guilford Press. N.Y.

Copper, Hoffman, Powell: (2013) The Circle of Security Intervention: Enhancing Attachment in Early Parent-Child Relationships Illustrated Edition. The Guilford Press. N.Y.

Mate, Gabor: (2011) When the Body Says No. Exploring The Stress -Disease Connection. Wiley and Sons. N.J.

Mate Gabor: (2007) In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Close Encounters With Addiction. Penguin Random House Canada Publishers. Knopf Canada

Siegel, Dan. (2001) The Developing Mind. How Relationships And ThenBrain Interact To Shape Who We Are. Guildford Press N.Y.

Vanderkolk, Bessel: (2014) The Body Keeps the Score. Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Publishers. N.Y.

25 thoughts on “Reflective Functioning and Relational Trust

  1. To understand and relearn your automatic responses to others and emotions is truly a life changing process. You’ve written about that process so clearly and throughly here. Wonderful information!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Well stated, LaDonna. “Amen” to a life changing process. Challenging, requiring patience, commitment, and a number of years, but all worth the time and effort to feel a deeper connection to Self and more joy in life. Thank you for offering an important read.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I always appreciate your very thoughtful, evidence-based and plainly expressed posts on relationships, especially ones that speak to the parent and child relationship.

    I definitely relate to the importance of building trust and how it requires us to understand our own early experiences with trust (or lack of trust and trauma) and how it’s important and very rewarding when we take the time to be attuned with our children’s emotions.

    It’s not always easy, as you noted, especially when there are many other factors at play – but it is so worth the time and energy invested!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you Ab. It truly is a journey with many wonderful and difficult places along the way. I always hear your heart in your post around parenting and know how fortunate your little one is to have you in his life.♥️

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I always adore reading you, LaDonna. This is a lovely article with so many jewels. “ Blocking our own path toward deeper relationship isn’t intentional. It is largely hidden from our own view and, as noted, is rooted in our early experiences with trust.” This is a wonderful starting point for people who are unaware, like I was, of how early childhood trauma is connected to the development of our reactivity and mental processing inside of our relationships. As I’ve discussed with you before, it’s taken years of deep diving to understand how these experiences have shaped my reactions in my relationships. And the same amount of work and time to move from emotional reactivity to an emotional response. A big difference. I agree that having someone to help guide the way is vey important, and was transformational for me. A wonderful write, my dear friend. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re welcome, LaDonna. Always. I appreciate that, thank you. It’s always so much fun to read you, reflect, and then see what comes. Always learning. Happy weekend, my dear friend. 💖💖

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Human communication is so complicated! A conversation is not taking turns to talk. Both parties have to listen and respond. It is important to pay attention to body language and tone of voice…and this is just the basics! No wonder people have misunderstandings! Thank you, LaDonna, for this post that guides us and gives us resources for communicating more effectively. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Cheryl. I appreciate what you have said and wholeheartedly agree. We can learn strategies but connection occurs through genuine attunement. I hope you have a wonderful week ahead. 💗💗

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, LaDonna, you have written about this deep, intimate subject matter so well. It’s not a wonder so many of us struggle! It seems that forgiveness must be a concept that you share with many clients. Thank you for sharing your empathy and knowledge in a way that is easy to understand. 🌞

    Liked by 1 person

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