For social interaction it is important to recognise the thoughts and feelings of other people and their causes. This ability helps to better understand other people and their behaviour, to establish contacts and to find solutions together in case of conflicts. Children first must develop these skills. Parents, grandparents, and other caregivers can support them in this process in everyday conversations and through play.
What does Theory of Mind mean and what does it have to do with mind reading?
How nice it would be if sometimes we could look into the heads of other people! If we understand what people feel, think, and know, we can adapt our behaviour accordingly. We can recognise the reasons why someone is sad, enthusiastic, or angry and, for example, find a good solution for both sides in an argument.
While we have no direct insight into other people’s inner worlds, fortunately we can all read minds a little!
For example, we can recognise people’s feelings from their faces or body postures. Furthermore, we have words or signs to exchange about people’s feelings and we can think about the causes of feelings. We can also recognise that other people have different beliefs than we do, because we make assumptions about the access to the information people have.
This ability to distinguish between the inner worlds of others and our own and the ability to make hypotheses about the thoughts and feelings of others is something we use every day – consciously or unconsciously – in interactions with our fellow human beings.
Sciencists call this ability “Theory of Mind”. It also includes the competence to recognize and understand one’s own feelings and the feelings of other people (“Emotion Understanding”).
Children usually acquire Theory of Mind skills at early and middle childhood. Those who are good at “mind reading” can:
1. recognize and name the feelings of others (from age 3.-4).
2. recognize external causes of feelings (from age 3.-4).
3. understand that memories can cause feelings (from age 3-6).
4. understand that desires can trigger feelings and recognize that different people can have different desires (from 3.-5 years of age).
5. understand that people have different levels of knowledge and may therefore have different – and perhaps sometimes wrong – beliefs (from 4-6 years).
6. understand that people can hide their real feelings (from 4-6 years).
7. use strategies to control their own feelings (from 6-8 years).
8. understand that people can have two or more feelings at the same time in a situation, i.e. mixed feelings (from age 8).
9. recognise that moral values and expectations can influence feelings (from age 8).
Children vary in their competences and speed of acquiring these abilities. The basis for Theory of Mind acquisition is the exchange and interaction with other people. Therefore, it is particularly important that children and their fellow human beings have a common language.
Deaf and hard of hearing children are at risk of developing Theory of Mind skills more slowly. One reason is that they learn spoken and/or sign language with a delay and have fewer opportunities to communicate with other people in their environment. It therefore makes sense to support them in this process at school and at home in everyday life.
How can I tell what my child can already do?
By talking to your child and observing his/her behaviour in everyday life, you can get an idea of what your child can already do. We will give you an example here:
„The Maths Test“
We can observe these “Theory of Mind” skills in Marco:
Marco recognizes Ben’s feelings and can name them. He also recognizes the reasons behind Ben’s feelings.
Marco understands that he can have mixed feelings himself.
He deliberately hides his joy to be considerate of Ben’s feelings. He thus has strategies to control his own feelings and to adapt his behaviour to the feelings of his friend.
Marco understands that Ben would rather hide his feelings from the other children. That is why he does not contradict Ben.
How can I support mind reading and Theory of Mind at home?
The good news is that mind-reading can be practised!
Why don’t you ask your child’s teachers if they already practise mind-reading in kindergarten or school? Our training program THE MIND READERS, which you can find on this website, supports teachers in this. It provides them with exercises and materials that can be used in the classroom, in small groups or in individual support.
You too can do something at home – and quite incidentally:
Talk/sign with your child in everyday life about feelings and thoughts.
Tell your child how you feel and what you think:
“I want so much for our football team to win today!”
“I’m so happy that you helped set the table.”
“I’m annoyed that I forgot the tomatoes when I went shopping!”
“I’m really looking forward to our holiday. But it also gives me a lot of stress to pack all the suitcases.”
Show your child how you deal with your feelings and thoughts.
“I’m so angry right now, I’m just going to take some time and have some tea to calm down.”
“I’m happy to have you. Give me a hug.”
” I am scared to jump off the cliff into the water. I’d rather get into the water from the beach.”
Report his/her feelings back to your child so that your child can better recognize and understand them.
„Ich glaube, dass du aufgeregt bist, weil Du morgen einen Test schreibst. Stimmt das?“
„Ich weiß, wie gern du diese Geschichte magst. Komm, ich lese sie dir vor.“
„Kann es sein, dass du traurig bist? Warum? Liegt es daran, dass Du Dich mit deiner Freundin / deinem Freund gestritten hast?“
„Ich sehe an Deinem Gesichtsausdruck, dass du wütend bist. Komm, wir reden darüber.“
Explain to your child possible causes and triggers for feelings.
“I understand that you are disappointed. I was looking forward to going to the playground too and now it’s raining.”
“It’s nice that you’re so happy about your present.”
“It’s understandable that you’re excited before the exam. You can do it!”
Accept your child with all feelings - each feeling is important for your child’s development.
“It’s okay that you’re angry. (I would be too.)”
“You’re very upset right now, shall we sit down first?”
Give your child time and accompany her/him in their feelings.
“Would you like to sit on my lap? Have a good cry, I’m here for you.”
“Go ahead and take your time in your room and let your feelings out. If you want to talk, I’m here.”
“Maybe you would like to visit a friend and talk/sign about how you are doing?”
Take advantage of the commercial break while watching TV and talk to your child about the inner life of the characters.
“How do you think … is doing now?”
“Why do you think … behaved like that?”
“Would you have reacted the same way as … ?”
“What do you think … wishes … ?”
“I’m curious to know what happens next. What do you think?”
After kindergarten/school, ask your child what they have experienced and how they feel about it.
“How was school?”
“What was the best thing you experienced today?”
“In which subject did you have the most fun today?”
“Why do you think you had a fight?”
Use varied language so that your child can learn new vocabulary.
Use different expressions for feelings - there are many more words and gestures than just "dear" and "bad".
“You must be happy/proud/relieved that you have improved so much in English, aren’t you?”
“I am thrilled/surprised at how brave you were today!”
“It was very fair/honest/sincere of you to give back the wallet you found.”
“You are so pensive/absent/dreamy today. What is the reason?”
“I am grateful to have such a warm/nice/helpful child like you!”
“Are you happy/content/pleased with your picture?”
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about/you don’t have to be ashamed, it’s perfectly normal.”
If you use several languages with the child, talk about feelings and thoughts in all languages.
You can find helpful vocabulary in sign language here.
Many play and read-aloud situations lend themselves to discussing other people’s inner worlds:
Play role-plays with your child, discussing the wishes, knowledge and feelings of the different characters.
Role play e.g. with dolls/ stuffed animals:
“Do you know what I want for my birthday?”
“A party with all my friends!”
“Why is that?”
“Well, because it would be huge fun to celebrate and play with everyone. That would be really nice.”
“I see! Yes, that would be nice. We could eat cake and play hide and seek.”
“I know where we can find sweets, come with me!”
“But we can’t just go there, Mum says.”
“Who cares? Mum won’t even notice.”
“But if she finds out we’ve been to the sweets bin, there’ll be trouble.”
“We do it secretly. That way she won’t know we’ve been snacking!”
Read books, comics etc. with your child and discuss the feelings and thoughts of the characters together.
“What do you think …. scared?”
“Why is … so afraid?”
“What could … do to stop him/her being so scared?”
“I think the story is really exciting. How do you like the story?”
“Do you think your best friend … would like this book as a birthday present?”
You can find a list with recommendations for books and board games as well as further exercise ideas here.
This text was produced in collaboration with students from the Humboldt University of Berlin. We would like to thank Violeta Blahusch, Sebastian Fitting, Rebekka Kreisel, Hannah Irene Riesenberg and Shary Teichert.