On good terms: 4 tips to promote social relationships in children with the theory of mind

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There are "popular" children, who get along well with everyone, and do not have major difficulties even with teachers: all characteristics that, of course, simplify life. While it is true that some children are naturally inclined to extricate themselves easily social relations, the good news is that moms and dads can incentivize these skills with attitudes and small activities related to psychological concept of "theory of mind".

mymodernparents.com talked about it with Serena Lecce, professor of developmental psychology, expert in theory of mind and author, with Federica Bianco, of a book containing a real program to promote it also at school: Put yourself in my shoes (Erickson 2022).

Theory of the mind, what it is

“It's about the ability to conceive the thoughts of others”States Lecce. "Or, in a more articulate way, the ability to understand that the mind exists and that inside the mind, ours and others, there are mental states, that is, thoughts, desires or emotions ". It is, therefore, the fundamental requirement for the ability to "put oneself in the shoes of others", to see things not only from our own, but also from other points of view.

In turn, this ability is critical to the relationship life: "It is no coincidence that it is very deficient in people with autism" stresses the psychologist. We all practice it every day for interpret the behavior of others and modulate ours accordingly: for example, if we see that a person who is usually lively and cheerful is standing alone in silence, we might think that he is sad and decide to go and talk to her.


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What is the theory of mind for

“The theory of mind is very important for the cooperation, to work in a group, for mediate conflicts finding a point of contact between the different des that generated them, therefore for develop and maintain good relationships with others”Explains Lecce.

And this is true both at home and at school. “Let's think of a child who starts the first grade of primary school” write Lecce and Bianco in Put yourself in my shoes. “He will have to get to know his teachers and try to understand what they want from him, he will have to relate to his classmates, understand how to behave and so on. The way (and the degree) in which he will be able to face all these challenges will derive his well-being and his scholastic success ".

Some studies show that children with higher levels of theory of mind tend to have more cooperative relationships with siblings, and to show fewer negative emotions e name stress during conflicts. But also to be more popular (and less excluded) among classmates and to have more ease in establishing a positive relationship with the teacher.

Read also: Circle time: the method for resolving conflicts in the classroom

The stages of development

The theory of mind is a very complex skill, and it takes several years for it to reach full maturity.

“Some recent studies say that already a 18 months there may be signs that indicate the child's ability to understand that others have mental states different from his own, but generally the first evident manifestations occur around the age of two, when the symbolic and fictional game begins, ”says Lecce. Indeed, playing pretend that something (for example a banana) is something else (a phone), sharing this fiction with others, indicates that the child is able to process and maintain a mental representation of reality. Usually, however, it is around the age of four that the theory of mind begins to take on a more mature form.

Several signs can make us understand that things are going in the right direction. In particular:

  • the parade of symbolic game;
  • the fact of tell lies. “They can annoy, but the reality is that from a cognitive point of view they are an excellent sign of development” comments Lecce. "They indicate that the child has perfectly understood that the other has mental states different from his, and that he can try to manipulate them to alter their behavior";
  • the parade of psychological lexicon, that is the use of terms (nouns, verbs, adjectives) that refer not to real objects but to mental states like, to be affectionate, to make tenderness, to get excited, to be afraid, to be jealous, to miss, to feel alone, to be fed up , be disappointed, want, decide, do it on purpose, prefer and many more.

How to empower the theory of mind

In the book Put yourself in my shoes, Lecce and Bianco propose a real educational program to help primary school teachers to enhance the development of the theory of mind in children. Much, however, can also be done at home, from the very first days of the baby's life. Here are some tips:

1. From the earliest days, try to promote good attachment with the baby.

"Some studies suggest that thinking of the child as having a mind of its own is a factor in promoting the theory of mind," Lecce explains.

Read also: The skills of the newborn, all the skills of the first days and weeks of life

2. Propose books that have to do with the subject of the mental states of others

According to Lecce, the most effective example from this point of view is Il Gruffalò (Emme Edizioni), in which a mouse walking in the woods manages to escape a series of predators, leading them to believe that there is an even more fearful predator, the gruffalo. , in fact - greedy from time to time of foxes, snakes or owls. Except then discover that the gruffalo ... really exists!

“It is a very useful book to make people understand that the theory of mind is an excellent one social tool: the mouse, in fact, manages to extricate itself from a terrible situation by manipulating the mental states of others through a dense system of false beliefs ".

However, the psychologist points out that many children's books contain evidence of false beliefs, and are therefore referred to as reading to promote the theory of mind. Other examples: A stone in the road, in which all the leading animals believe that a certain thing that suddenly appeared in the middle of a road is a stone, when instead it is a turtle (and it does not end here ...), or Where is the my mum?

3. Pay attention to words, promoting an educational style attentive to the recognition and description of the mental states of the child and those around him
“A very important aspect in a child's ability to develop theory of mind is exposure, in the family, to a rich psychological lexicon used in a connected way with respect to the child himself, to his desires and his emotions ”explains Lecce. In short, it is a question of talking to the child about his mental states, expanding them and connecting them to lived experiences.

Let's imagine the family took a trip to the zoo. Here's what an experience dialogue might look like that could promote the theory of mind:

"Do you remember that we went to the zoo? Did you like it? I liked it, I thought the elephant scared me but then I really enjoyed observing the lemurs".

4. Propose frequent "decentralization" exercises

Nothing complicated: it is just a matter of inviting the child to put himself in the shoes of others, always stimulating a reflection on mental states, and they can be done on various daily occasions. For example:
- The little brother is crying. You can say to the child, “See? He's crying, he's probably not happy. What do you think he wants? Maybe he cries because he wants to go outside, or because you took the game out of him? Let's try to give him this other game and see how it goes? "
- The gift for a friend's birthday. You can ask the child: "What do you think he might like? Do you think this game would bore him or could make him happy?"
- When there are other children and for example a snack is offered, or a game is decided. You can ask each child what he likes, what he prefers. "This exercise has a great ethical value - concludes Lecce - because it promotes the recognition of the individual and the acceptance of diversity".

  • theory of mind
  • cognitive development
  • empathy
  • play
  • children at school
  • 6-14 children years
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