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When Will Your Child Understand How You Feel?

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Toddlers are notoriously bad at seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Any parent who has tried patiently to explain that hitting hurts, only to be swatted yet again, or discussed sharing for the twentieth time, knows that little kids are not the most empathetic creatures. But that’s okay; they’re not supposed to be. Understanding that other people have thoughts, feelings, and perspectives different than our own is what psychologists call a “theory of mind.” And until they are four, children’s brains simply aren’t wired to do it yet. For a long time it was unclear what causes this quantum leap in empathy, but recently scientists got some important answers.

To figure out if a child has a theory of mind, researchers use simple scenarios, called “false belief tests” that any parent can replicate at home. In one test a child is shown a bag of M&Ms, but inside there are pencils instead of candy. A second child comes into the room (not privy to the switch in contents). Researchers ask the first child what he thinks the second will say is in the bag. Three-year-olds say “pencils,” because they know the pencils are there (so everyone else must too). Four-year-olds say “M&Ms” because they know the other child will assume the bag is carrying its usual goodies.

Of course empathy doesn’t develop overnight. Its roots can be seen even in babies. When an eight-month-old points at a dog and looks back at mom, she’s showing “joint attention”, a skill that means she is aware that Mom might enjoy the furry animal too. Around 18 months, children start with pretend play – rudimentary at first, but later playing “house” or imagining that a toy figure is a racecar driver. By this point kids can see that people have distinct roles and behaviors. But it’s not until around a child’s fourth birthday that he really grasps the fact that the racecar driver and he (and Mom and Dad for that matter) have separate thoughts and feelings.

Many doctors believe that a delayed theory of mind is one of the main features of the autism spectrum disorders. For these children, social communication is hard, in part because their ability to see from another’s perspective can lag behind that of a typically developing child. This makes relationships difficult, because interpersonal skills really hinge on our ability to imagine the mental states of others. People with autism tend to struggle with the give and take of social dynamics that comes more naturally to many of us. Through functional MRI tests (brain scans taken while a person is performing certain tasks), scientists can see the regions of the brain that give us a theory of mind – an area between the temporal and parietal lobes and the amygdala, an emotional center, seem to be key. Tests are underway to figure out if this region of the brain might provide clues to the origins of autism.

In the last year, scientists have figured out that language may be central to acquiring a theory of mind. Researcher Jennie Pyers used the false belief test with a population of deaf people in Nicaragua, who had created their own sign language in the 1970s. The first generation, who had only a crude form of sign language, failed the false belief test more often, even though they were the oldest of the group. The second generation had developed a more sophisticated sign language, and did better on the test. Researchers suspect that listening to someone articulate their point of view – using advanced words and concepts – allows kids to see that each person has his own distinct thoughts and feelings.

Theory of mind is a developmental milestone, just as reliable as learning to walk or seeing in full color. And the possibility that language is what eventually makes it possible means that our verbal and emotional interactions with our kids are that much more important. Rest assured that all of your diligent explaining that, “it hurts Mom when you hit” is not going to waste. Just don’t expect it to sink in until all the proper mental machinery is in place.

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