Adopted Adolescents Talk about the Mental States: a Qualitative Exploratory Study

Chiara Bastianoni, Simone Charpentier-Mora, Donatella Cavanna, Fabiola Bizzi


Adolescence represents a developmental phase characterized by several changes during which social and cognitive advances lead adolescents to the progressive improvement of mental states talk (MST), namely as a specific kind of language marked by semantic terms describing internal mental states related to both self and others. The use of MST within individual narratives has been associated with the capability to reflect on cognitive and emotional experiences, thus promoting a meaning-making process of self and others understanding. In light of that and considering the additional challenges characterizing the adolescent transition for adoption, this qualitative exploratory contribution aims to explore adopted adolescents’ use of MST from their narratives deepening the meaning-making process of the psychological and relational dimension of self and others. The Friends and Family Interview was administered to 13 adopted adolescents after eight years from their first placement. The transcripts were analyzed through the use of thematic content analysis. The findings highlight the extensive employment of MST among adopted adolescents with broader use of the Self than the Other-oriented once. Self MST co-occurs with other categories related to significant relational contexts. This brings additional insights within adoption research providing valuable resources for working with adopted adolescents and their families.


Adoption; Adolescence; Mental States Talk; Friends and Family Interview; Qualitative study.

Full Text:



Abrines, N., Barcons, N., Marre, D., Brun, C., Fornieles, A., & Fumadó, V. (2012). ADHD like symptoms and attachment in internationally adopted children. Attachment and Human Development, 14(4), 405–423.

Alegret, I.A., Pérez‐Testor, C., Rotger, J.M., Baró, M.S., Pujols, M.D., Junyent, V.M., Marttinez, B.A., Brodzinsky, D. M. (2018). Influence of communicative openness on the psychological adjustment of internationally adopted adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 30(S1), 226–237.

Allen, J. P. (2008). The attachment system in adolescence. In J. Cassidy, & P. Shaver (Eds.). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 419–435). (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Andrews, J., Zaman, W., Merrill, N., Duke, M., & Fivush, R. (2015). Gender differences in adolescent birth narratives. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4, 356–362.

Barcons, N., Abrines, N., Brun, C., Sartini, C., Fumadó, V., & Marre, D. (2014). Attachment and adaptive skills in children of international adoption. Child and Family Social Work, 19, 89-98.

Barroso, R., & Barbosa-Ducharne, M. (2019). Adoption-related feelings, loss, and curiosity about origins in adopted adolescents. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24(4), 876–891.

Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H.M. (1995). Children talk about the mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bastianoni, C., Charpentier Mora, S., De Gregorio, E., Bizzi, F. (2020). Exploring adopted adolescents' inner world through the lens of qualitative methodology. Children and Youth Services Review, 113, 104973.

Bauer, P. J., Stennes, L., & Haight, J. C. (2003). Representation of the inner self in autobiography: Women's and men's use of internal states language in personal narratives. Memory, 11, 27–42.

Benjamin, T., Chang, D. F., & Steele, M. (2019). A qualitative study of "fa'a'amu" kinship care experiences in Tahiti. Adoption Quarterly, 22(3), 173–198.

Bizzi, F., Charpentier-Mora, S., Ensink, K., Cavanna, D., & Borrelli, J. (2020). Does Children's Mentalizing Mediate the Role of Attachment and Psychological Maladjustment in Middle Childhood? Journal of Child and Family Studies 29, 1793–1803.

Bizzi, F., Ensink, K., Borelli, J., Charpentier-Mora, S., & Cavanna, D. (2019). Attachment and reflective functioning in children with somatic symptom disorders and disruptive behavior disorders. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(5), 705–717.

Blakemore, S.J. (2012). Development of the social brain in adolescence. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 105, 111-116.

Blakemore, S.J., & Mills, K.L. (2014). Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing?. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 187-207.

Blos, P. (1967). The second individuation process of adolescence. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 22, 162–186.

Bohanek, J. G. (2006). Family narratives of shared emotional experiences and relations to child outcome. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Emory University.

Bohanek, J.G., & Fivush, R. (2010). Personal narratives, well-being, and gender in adolescence. Cognitive Development, 25, 368-379.

Branje, S. (2018). Development of parent-adolescent relationships: Conflict interactions as a mechanism of change. Child Development Perspectives, 12(3), 171–176.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101.

Brodzinsky, D. M. (2006). Family structural openness and communicative openness as predictors in the adjustment of adopted children. Adoption Quarterly, 9(4), 1–17.

Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social Research, 54, 11–32

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 150–163.

Byrnes, J.P. (2003). Cognitive development during adolescence. In G.R. Adams & M.D. Berzonsky (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of adolescence (pp. 227–246). Oxford, USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Chandler, M., & Carpendale, J. (2003). Colloquy on a community of minds. Human Development, 46, 51–57.

De Gregorio, E., & Lattanzi, P. F. (2011). Programmi per la ricerca qualitativa. Guida introduttiva all'utilizzo di ATLAS.ti e MAXQDA. Milano, Italy: Franco Angeli.

DeJong, M., Hodges, J., & Malik, O. (2016). Children after adoption: Exploring their psychological needs. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 21(4), 536–550.

Devine, R.T., & Hughes, C. (2013). Silent films and strange stories: Theory of mind, gender, and social experiences in middle childhood. Child Development, 84, 989-1003.

Dunn, J., & Brophy, M. (2005). Communication, relationships, and individual differences in children's understanding of the mind. In J. W. Astington & J. A. Baird (Eds.), Why language matters for theory of mind (pp. 50–69). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ensink, K., Normandin, L., Target, M., Fonagy, P., Sabourin, S., & Berthelot, N. (2015). Mentalization in children and mothers in the context of trauma: an initial study of the validity of the child reflective functioning scale. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 203–217.

Farr, R.H., Grant-Marsney, H-A., Musante, D.S., Grotevant, H.D., & Miller Wrobel, G. (2014). Adoptees' Contact With Birth Relatives in Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research, 29(1) 45–66.

Fivush, R. (2008). Remembering and reminiscing: How individual lives are constructed in family narratives. Memory Studies, 1, 49-58.

Fivush, R. & Baker-Ward, L. (2005). The Search for Meaning: Developmental Perspectives on Internal State Language in Autobiographical Memory. Journal of Cognition and Development, 6(4), 455-462.

Fivush, R., & Buckner, J. P. (2003). Creating gender and identity through autobiographical narratives. In R.

Fivush, & C. A. Haden (Eds.), Autobiographical memory and the construction of a narrative self: Developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 149–167). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. L., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self. New York, NY: Other Press.

Fonagy, P., Target, M., Steele, H., & Steele, M. (1998). Reflective functioning manual, version 5.0, for application to adult attachment interviews. London: University College London.

Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 823-865.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218–226.

Gavazzi, I.G., Ornaghi, V., & Antoniotti, C. (2011). Children's and adolescents' narratives of guilt: Antecedents and mentalization. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 8(3), 311-330.

George, C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1996). Adult attachment interview (unpublished manuscript). Berkeley: University of California.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Graneist, A, & Habermas, T. (2020). Exploring Gender Differences in the Use of Internal State Language in Mother-Adolescent Reminiscing. Sex Roles, 82, 321-335.

Grotevant, H.D., Wrobel, G.M., M.H., van Dulmen, McRoy, R.G. (2001). The Emergence of Psychosocial Engagement in Adopted Adolescents: The Family as Context Over Time. Journal of Adolescent Research, 16(5), 469-490.

Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748–769.

Halfon, S., Coşkun, A., Bekar, O., & Steele, H. (2020). Imbalances and Impairments in Mental State Talk of Children with Internalizing and Externalizing Problems. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19, 283-302.

Harris, P.L. (2008). Children's understanding of emotion. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. B. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotion (3rd ed., pp. 320–331). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Howard, J. A., Smith, S. L., & Ryan, S. D. (2004). A comparative study of child welfare adoptions with other types of adopted children and birth children. Adoption Quarterly, 7(3), 1–30.

Hughes, C., & Devine, R.T. (2015). Individual differences in theory of mind from preschool to adolescence: Achievements and directions. Child Development Perspectives, 9, 149-153.

Hughes, C., & Devine, R.T. (2019). Let's Talk: Parents' Mental Talk (Not Mind-Mindedness or Mindreading Capacity) Predicts Children's False Belief Understanding. Child Development, 90(4), 1236-1253.

Hughes, C., White, N., & Ensor, R. (2014). How does talk about thoughts, desires, and feelings foster children's socio-cognitive development? Mediators, moderators and implications for intervention. In K.H. Lagattuta (Ed.), Children and emotion: New insights into developmental affective sciences (pp. 95-105). Basel: Karger.

Jenkins, J. M., Turrell, S. L., Kogushi, Y., Lollis, S., & Ross, H. S. (2003). A longitudinal investigation of the dynamics of mental state talk in families. Child Development, 74, 905–920.

Johnson, D., & Fein, E. (1991). The concept of attachment: Applications to adoption. Children and Youth Services Review, 13(5–6), 397–412.

Kelle, U. (2007). The development of categories: Different approaches in grounded theory. In A. Bryant, & K. Charmaz (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of grounded theory (pp. 191–213). London, UK: Sage.

Kuckartz, U., & Rädiker, S. (2019). Analyzing qualitative data with MAXQDA. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

León, E., Steele, M., Palacios, J., Román, M., & Moreno, C. (2018). Parenting adoptive children: Reflective functioning and parent-child interactions. A comparative, relational and predictive study. Children and Youth Services Review, 95, 352-360.

Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. Symbiosis and Individuation. New York: Basic Books.

O'Kearney, R., Speyer, J., & Kenardy, J. (2007). Children's narrative memory for accidents and their post-traumatic distress. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 821-838. https://doi:10.1002/acp.1294

Oliva, A. (2015). Desarrollo positivo adolescente. Madrid: Síntesis.

Pace, C.S., Di Folco, S., Guerriero, V., & Muzi, S. (2019). Late-adopted children grown up: A long-term longitudinal study on attachment patterns of adolescent adoptees and their adoptive mothers. Attachment & Human Development, 21(4), 372–388.

Palacios, J., & Brodzinsky, D. (2010). Adoption research: Trends, topics, outcomes. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34(3), 270–284.

Palacios, J., Román, M., Moreno, C., & León, E. (2009). Family context for emotional recovery in internationally adopted children. International Social Work, 52(5), 609–620.

Paniagua, C., Moreno, C., Rivera, F., & Jiménez-Iglesias, A. (2019a). Adolescents' Perceptions of Family Relationships in Adoptees and Non-Adoptees: More Similarities than Differences. British Journal of Social Work, 49, 25-43.

Paniagua, C., Moreno, C., Rivera, F., & Ramos, P. (2019b). The sources of support and their relation on the global health of adopted and non-adopted adolescents. Children and Youth Services Review, 98, 228–237.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M.E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601–626.

Pennebaker, J. W., Francis, M. E., & Booth, R. J. (2001). Linguistic inquiry and word count: LIWC 2001. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Publishers.

Priel, B., S. Melamed-Hass, A. Besser and B. Kantor (2000). Adjustment among Adopted Children: The Role of Maternal Self-reflectiveness. Family Relations 49(4), 389–96.

Ralph, N., Birks, M., & Chapman, Y. (2015). The methodological dynamism of grounded theory. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 14(4), 1–6.

Roberson, K.C. (2006). Attachment and caregiving behavioral systems in intercountry adoption: A literature review. Children and Youth Services Review, 28(7), 727 740.

Rueter, M. A., Keyes, M. A., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2009). Family interactions in adoptive compared to nonadoptive families. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(1), 58–66.

Rushton, A. (2003). The adoption of looked after children: A scoping review of research. London: Social Care Institute for Excellence.

Ryan, G. V., & Russell Bernard, H. (2003). Techniques to identify themes. Field Methods, 15(1), 85–109. https://doi:10.1177/1525822X02239569.

Scabini, E., & Cigoli, V. (2000). Il famigliare: Legami, simboli e transizioni. Milano, Italy: Raffaello Cortina.

Scopesi, A.M., Rosso, A.M., Viterbori, P., & Panchieri, E. (2015). Mentalizing abilities in preadolescents' and their mothers' autobiographical narratives. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 35, 467–483.

Slade, A. (2005). Parental reflective functioning: an introduction. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 269–281.

Slaughter, V., & Peterson, C.C. (2012). How conversational input shapes theory of mind development in infancy and early childhood. In M. Siegal & L. Surian (Eds.), Access to language and cognitive development (pp. 3–22). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Steele, H., & Steele, M. (2005). The construct of coherence as an indicator of attachment security in middle childhood: The Friends and Family Interview. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Styers, M.K., Baker-Ward, L. (2013). Finding the light at the end of the tunnel: Age differences in the relation between internal states terms and coping with potential threats to self. Memory, 21(1), 27-43.

Symons, D.G. (2004). Mental state discourse, theory of mind, and the internalization of self-other understanding. Developmental Review, 24, 159-188.

Tafà, M. (2007). Il ciclo vitale della famiglia: Un costrutto utile per la lettura del funzionamento familiare. In S. Mazzoni, & M. Tafà (Eds.). L'intersoggettività nella famiglia. Procedure multimetodo per l'osservazione e la valutazione delle relazioni familiari (pp. 32-53). Milano, Italy: Franco Angeli.

Tarullo, A.R., Youssef, A., Frenn, K.A., Wiik, K., Garvin, M.C., Gunnar, M.R. (2016). Emotion understanding, parent mental state language, and behavior problems in internationally adopted children. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 371-383.

Thompson, R.A. (2014). Why are relationships important to children's well-being? In F. Ben-Arieh, I. Casas, I. Frones, & J. Korbin (Eds.). Handbook of child well-being. Theories, methods and policies in global perspective (pp. 1917–1954). New York: Springer Reference.

Tompkins V., Benigno J.P., Kiger Lee B., Wright B.M. (2018). The relation between parents' mental state talk and children's social understanding: A meta-analysis. Social Development, 27, 223-246.

Vanwoerden, S., Greiner, I., Ensink, K., & Sharp, C. (2019). The relations between self-and caregiver-focused reflective function and theory of mind in the context of borderline pathology in adolescence. Psychiatry Research, 273, 274-280.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wright, L., & Flynn, C. C. (2006). Adolescent adoption: Success despite challenges. Children and Youth Services Review, 28(5), 487–510.



  • There are currently no refbacks.