Theory of mind involves understanding that people don’t share the same thoughts and feelings as you do. It allows us to predict and interpret the behaviors of others. Another way to think about it is the ability to “tune-in” to other peoples’ perspectives. This is something that starts to develop in early childhood.
Theory of mind develops gradually, with intuitive social skills appearing in infancy and then reflective social cognition developing during the toddler and preschool years. During early childhood, children develop certain foundational skills that will help to promote theory of mind. Some of these things include:
· Watching others and imitating them
· Putting words to other people’s emotions
· Pretending to be another person in play (e.g., playing doctor or being mommy)
True theory of mind starts to develop closer to age 4-5 when children really start to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Theory of mind continues to develop after the age of 5 years in which children learn how to predict how another person may feel or what they might be thinking. This is where children start to learn more abstract language such as figure of speech, idioms and sarcasm.
When children struggle with theory of mind, they may have difficulty understanding abstract language, making friends, engaging in conversation, or understanding characters perspectives in stories to name a few.
Children with autism, communication difficulties, and ADHD may exhibit difficulty with developing theory of mind.
You can help your child with developing theory of mind by putting words to how your child is feeling (e.g., “You are crying. I think you are sad because you wanted a cookie and I said no.”). Other strategies include:
· Pretend play – taking on different characters and roles
· Talking about characters in a book – what they are thinking and how they are feeling
· Talking about past experiences - Talk with your child about what happened earlier in the day, the week, month, or year, while incorporating mental state verbs. For example: “We wanted to do something special for Emily's for his birthday. We knew she liked going to the park. We remembered the last time we went to the park together; Emily told us that she felt so happy to swing on the swings. She told us that she thinks the swings are the best part of going to the park.
· Naming mental states as they occur - Help your child to notice other people’s
mental states by drawing specific attention to them. For example, when ordering food at a restaurant you could ask, “What do you think your brother might like to eat? Why
don’t you ask him, Nathen, what would you like to eat?”
When you do this, highlight that you and your child don’t always know what Nathen would like, but you can find out by asking him. You can help you child to understand that sometimes, other people's thoughts and feelings will be different from theirs.
When talking to your child, you can put into words what you are both thinking and feeling. These interactions will enhance your child’s understanding of their own thoughts and feelings, and how others can have different thoughts and feelings from their own.