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Theory of Mind and its Role in Child Psychology

Adults often joke about children’s ability to tell the truth without hesitation. They may explain that their innocence influences that behavior, but a child’s playful truth-telling is linked to a more complex mental state referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM).

What is Theory of Mind?

When we develop a Theory of Mind, we can understand why someone else acts a certain way. This mindset helps us create a simulation of what is happening in someone else’s mind. It can also make us understand that people are influenced by mental states of beliefs, intentions and desires different from one’s own. When people use the Theory of Mind and understand others’ perceptions of the world, they can navigate most social situations.

Adults do an excellent job at perceiving other people as fundamentally different. They can identify nuances in their language and behavior that they can connect to belief systems, especially strong things such as morality, politics and religions.

Studies on Theory of Mind focus on children between the ages two and seven because they’re still developing their ability to perceive others’ beliefs systems. They simply can’t read others as well as adults can. At this early stage in child development, the child is still learning how to make sense of the social and physical world around them.

By the age of four, children begin to have a sense of mental states of others while their verbal, cognitive and movement abilities become more complex. For children with developmental delays like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Theory of Mind may take longer to develop or not develop at all, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Developmental Milestones

The AAP provides a comprehensive list of young children’s milestones like speaking, acting and moving, that allow adults to notice an infant’s typical developmental process. If children display delays on one of these abilities, it’s important to ask a pediatrician about a developmental screening test.

How Do Children Develop Theory of Mind?

Children’s subjective representations of themselves and those around them are different from those of adolescents and adults. Early infants (between the ages of two and three) develop the Theory of Mind by learning skills that allow them to:

  • Recognize others’ emotions and use words to express them
  • Pay attention to people and follow their lead
  • Know that people act according to the things they want
  • Know that they are different from other people
  • Understand the causes of consequences of emotions

Between the ages of four and five, the child is receptive to think about their friends’ and families’ thoughts and feelings. This is a crucial period of development in children’s social environments. After the age of five, they learn to predict what people think or feel about others. They also begin to understand more complex languages like sarcasm, lies and figurative language.

Questions like how theory of mind develops at all and whether it’s a process of maturity are still unanswered. But research proves advancement in the theories’ origin and its relation to child development.

For example, a study in the journal Child Development aggregated 25 years of findings of children between the ages three and seven and linked children’s family environment with the emergence of false belief, a crucial aspect that affects the mind’s ability to contrast beliefs with reality.

According to the research, a child’s home environment, their parent’s communication style and socioeconomic status can affect the development of this concept.

The False-Belief Task

The ability to attribute false beliefs usually emerges after the age of three, as part of their social milestones. Child psychologists and child development specialists can provide support and help them develop the concept if delayed with the correct diagnosis.

A commonly used technique to measure the Theory of Mind is the False-Belief Task. During a False-Belief task, an experimenter will tell a child something is false despite the facts. An example widely recreated is labeling a box “pencils” and telling a child that it has candy inside instead. Then the adult in the room will ask the child, “If Andrew came into the room, what would he believe is inside the box?”

Many three-year-olds will respond “pencils” because they realize that another child will have a different understanding of the situation. Children who haven’t developed ToM might say that Andrew will think there is candy, mistakenly assuming Andrew has their same belief system.

The Relationship Between Theory of Mind and Autism

People with ASD cannot comprehend other people’s behaviors or intentions. Due to their delayed ToM, they can’t build a mental model based on assumptions or social accuracy. This ultimately leads to ineffective communication, the unlikeliness to show empathy, and a lack of social cues around them.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 59 children eight years of age has been diagnosed with ASD. The prevalence of autism is linked to shifting diagnostic categories, according to a 2007 study published in the American Academy for Pediatrics. And with heightened public awareness, parents are more likely to raise concerns about autism. In some cases, the AAP states that autism in children may go unnoticed until they begin to go to schools, and teachers notice difficulties with classmate interactions. Learn more about the signs of autism and diagnosis here.

Although the timing of autism’s early signs sometimes varies, children who don’t have autism can show similar symptoms. This happens when a child who doesn’t have ASD has another behavioral disorder, in which case a professional must do a proper evaluation. Theory of Mind can play an important role in this assessment.

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