Theory of Mind Development is an exciting area of contemporary developmental psychology that concerns the child’s developing understanding of other people as thinking beings – individuals with different perceptions, emotions and reasoning.
In this article we will learn more about what is the theory of mind, how it is developed and how we as parent can help our children in this development process.
What is the Theory of Mind?
Theory of Mind (ToM) is the intuitive theory by which people infer and understand another’s mental state (beliefs, desires, and emotions) and use this information to explain and predict human behavior.
Having a theory of mind allows us to understand that others have unique beliefs and desires that are different from our own, enabling us to engage in daily social interaction as we interpret the mental states and infer the behaviors of those around us.
How Theory of Mind Develops in Typical Children
During infancy and early childhood, children learn the early skills that they’ll need to develop their theory of mind later on.
Between ages 4-5, children really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges.
Children’s theory of mind continues to develop after age five. For the next several years they learn to predict what one person thinks or feels about what another person is thinking or feeling and social communication skills development. They also begin to understand complex language that relies on theory of mind, such as lies, sarcasm, and figurative language (like “it’s raining cats and dogs”).
Some experts argue that theory of mind development continues over a lifetime as one has more opportunities to experience people and their behavior
Why Is the Children Theory of Mind development is Important?
The emergence of a theory of mind is vital during the developmental process. Very young children tend to be more egocentric and are often unable to think about the mental states of others. As people age, their theory of mind emerges and continues to develop.
Forging a strong theory of mind plays an important role in our social worlds as we work to understand how people think, to predict their behavior, to engage in social relationships, and to solve interpersonal conflicts.
In order to interact with others, it is important to be able to understand their mental states and to think about how those mental states might influence their actions.
Theory of mind allows people to infer the intentions of others, as well as to think about what’s going on in someone else’s head, including hopes, fears, beliefs, and expectations. Social interactions can be complex, and misunderstandings can make them even more fraught. By being able to develop accurate ideas about what other people are thinking, we are better able to respond accordingly.
How Can I Help In My Children Theory of Mind Development?
The way parents talk to and play with their child can help children’s understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings. In fact, studies have shown that when mothers use words that refer to thinking and feeling when they talk to their child, it helps their child’s theory of mind development. Here are some simple things you can do at home with your child to promote his or her theory of mind:
Follow your child’s lead
In order to tune-in, children need to be paying attention to other people. This can’t happen if you are talking about or playing with things that your child is not interested in or attending to. Observe your child’s interests and then get down to his or her physical level so that you are face-to-face. This will help your child pay attention to you and tune-in to your facial expression. Give up your ideas of what he should do or how he should play, and join in his play by copying his actions and adding to his or her play ideas. Once you are paying attention to the same thing, you will have an opportunity to use “tuning-in” language.
Use “tuning-in language”
This means putting your own and your child’s perspective into words. Imagine what your child is wanting, thinking or feeling, and say something about it, like “oh, you want a cookie”, “Don’t worry. You thought I was gone, but I’m here!”, or “I’m upset because you threw your toy”. You can also explain why other people do the things they do – for example, “Sally looks happy. She must really like her present”.
Role play and pretend together
Role play helps develop theory of mind because it encourages children to think about and act out other peoples’ perspectives. When children first learn to role play, they pretend to be individuals whom they have experienced in everyday life, like pretending to be Mommy, a doctor, bus driver or teacher. Stay in role when you role play together. For example, if you are pretending to be a doctor and your child is the patient, say and do things a doctor would do, and avoid being a real-life parent for the moment.
Use books to talk about the characters’ thoughts and feelings
Talking about the characters’ thoughts and feelings, their different ideas and reactions, and what characters might do next in the story helps promote early theory of mind. But research shows that it is also important to connect these ideas to the child’s own experiences. For example, if you are talking about a character that looks sad because she lost her favorite toy, you could connect that to a time when your child was sad because he lost something special.