How to motivate kids

How to spot delays of Theory of Mind in kids

Theory of Mind is a term in psychology that assesses an individual’s degree of capacity for empathy and understanding of others. It is a crucial social-cognitive skill that kids need to develop, so delays in theory of mind are worth paying attention to. Theory of mind enables kids to understand that others experience feelings, others have needs, and others are motivated by their needs or desires, just as they do.

For example, when your child connects ‘I am thirsty so I will drink a glass of water’ with ‘others have desires, too…he must be thirsty if he, too, is drinking water’.

How about another example, this time of a DISCONNECT involving theory of mind. Have you ever been on a phone call with a small child? It’s fun, right? (Not.) Lots of lengthy silence and disjointed conversation is usually involved. For instance, you might be put on a phone call with a two-year-old. When you ask, “What are you doing?”, you may get the answer, “Eating this.”

You don’t know what ‘this’ is, because you can’t see the child. But in her mind, her perspective and experience is shared universally. She hasn’t yet figured out that others have different points-of-view and feelings and thoughts than her own. When she’s older, it will be more productive to chat on the phone, because she’ll be able to say, “Eating blueberries,” which can prompt further discussion about her day.

To spot delays in theory of mind in kids, we first must understand theory of mind’s natural progression.

So if your phone call with a toddler proves frustrating, when CAN you expect your child to understand the concept of theory of mind?

The building blocks of theory of mind are present very early on, during infancy and early childhood, when kids learn to:

  • notice people and copy them
  • understand others’ emotions and connect words to describe them (happy, sad)
  • recognize that they are different from other people (I like chocolate ice cream, but he likes vanilla)
  • understand motivation (that people act according to what they want or need)
  • understand cause and effect (if I throw my food on the floor, dad will get mad)
  • start pretend play (pretend to be a doctor or a firefighter)

Then, between ages 4-5, true theory of mind can be seen in kids. By this age, they usually understand:

  • wanting (different people want different things)
  • thinking (different people think differently)
  • seeing = knowing (the person on the phone can’t see that I’m eating blueberries, and therefore cannot know it)
  • false beliefs (people act on beliefs, which are sometimes not true)
  • hidden feelings (Mom looks calm, but she’s really angry)

Delays of theory of mind: what to look for

  • difficulty understanding why people do and say the things they do
  • trouble having a conversation or telling a story
  • difficulty understanding characters’ perspectives in storybooks
  • trouble make friends
  • an inability to engage in pretend play

These issues are most often noticed in children with autism spectrum disorder, kids with ADHD, and kids with social communication difficulties.

Up next: How to help kids struggling with theory of mind

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How to spot delays in theory of mind in kids.

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