Exploring Paternal Mentalization Among Fathers of Toddlers Through a Clay-Sculpting Task

This study explored parental mentalization processes as they unfolded during a sculpting task administered to fathers of toddlers. Parental mentalization—the parent’s ability to understand behavior (his/her own as a parent and that of their child) based on its underlying mental states (Luyten et al., 2017)—is considered crucial within parent–child relationships (Fonagy et al., 1998) and child development (Steele and Steele, 2008). Eleven Israeli first-time fathers (n = 11) of children aged 2–3 (mean = 2.3) were asked to sculpt a representation of themselves with their child using clay. Following the task, the fathers were interviewed while observing the sculpture they had created. Qualitative thematic analysis integrated three types of data—video footage of the sculpting processes, the sculptures themselves, and the transcripts of the post-sculpting interviews. By focusing on data extracts relating to mentalization processes, three main aspects of the clay-sculpting task and interview were identified as processes that either preceded controlled mentalization instances and/or related to their underlying dynamics: (1) discussing the sculpting process elicited the father’s curiosity and wonder; (2) observing the sculpture/sculpting process revealed gaps in paternal representations; and (3) the preplanning of the sculptures sparked non-verbal exploration of metaphors and symbolism. Special attention was given, in the analysis, to the interplay between verbal and non-verbal aspects of mentalization as they appeared in the metaphorical representations that arose through the sculpting process. Comparing this sample to a previous sample of mothers who were given the same task, similarities and differences were explored, with specific reference to topics of embodiment, gender roles, paternity leave, and an active approach in art therapy. The discussion indicates that clay sculpting may offer unique insight into implicit parental mentalization. Possible clinical applications are discussed, with reference to attachment theory and clinical art therapy approaches.

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