Maybe you’ve spotted the warning signs of a delay in theory of mind in your child. What can you DO about it? The good news: it’s possible to help kids tune in better to others emotions, needs, wants, and feelings. Even just the way parents talk at home can help increase theory of mind in kids.
If you’re noticing a delay in empathy and the basic ability to conceptualize a difference in others, there are simple things you can try at home that can help your child.
Join in your child’s play:
Get down on the floor and meet your child where he is. He’s more likely to tune into you if you’re doing something he’s interested in. Don’t dictate how the game or play session should progress, but rather, join into what he’s already doing and allow him to see your facial expressions and tone of voice while you’re playing. By paying attention to the same thing simultaneously, you set the stage for ‘tuning in’ language.
Tune in to your child, and identify feelings or thoughts:
While playing, put your child’s perspective into words. This is called ‘tuning in’ language. For instance: “You are running really fast. You must feel strong and powerful.” Then put others’ perspectives into words. “Kayley is crying because she wanted to play with that toy, and you just grabbed it from her.” You’re giving your child a cheat sheet of sorts, but you’re doing it on his level, while engaged in an action or activity he will be likely to stay tuned into.
Role play with your child:
- Never underestimate the power of role play! It helps to increase theory of mind in kids because it prompts kids to think through and act out other peoples’ perspectives. When your child can pretend to be another individual, they are able to put themselves in another’s shoes. Start by role playing people your child is familiar with and sees in daily life, like a teacher, bus driver, or grocery clerk.
Use literature as a teaching tool:
An offshoot of role play is literature and movies. Read or watch something together that your child is interested in, and then talk about the characters’ feelings. Ask your child, “Why do you think she is running away right now?” or, “What is making him sad?” If the character is sad because he dropped his ice cream cone on the ground, parallel this experience with one your child has had. “I remember when that happened to you, and how disappointed you felt.”
You don’t need to try to ‘fit in’ theory of mind ‘training’ or lessons into your child’s life. Everyday moments can become teachable moments as long as you slow down, point them out, and talk about them. “That boy sure looks excited to be at the park!”, for example. Or, “Your sister sure is mad to be in time-out. I know it’s frustrating for her to be missing out on the fun.”