The Theory of Mind: Has Your Child Developed It Yet?

Renee has a diverse background in Education in a variety of settings; including Early Childhood, Special Education and Tertiary Studies.

Picture Sourced from : The Hanen Centre

Picture Sourced from : The Hanen Centre

If you have a 3-year old, then you would be all too familiar with the following scenarios:

  1. A frustrating phone call. You ask them what they are doing, and the 3-year old replies with “I am doing this” and you are expected to know exactly what they are talking about.
  2. A dis-jointed story that makes no sense. The 3-year old tries to tell you a story but is getting frustrated with you because you are not following what they are saying or you did not automatically know the parts of the story that they had left out.
  3. Birthday present shopping drama. You go to the shop to buy a birthday present for somebody else, and the 3-year old can only pick out a present that appeals to them. They can’t possibly understand why Great Aunt Margaret wouldn’t want a Ninja Turtle Figurine.

Why is this the case? The 3-year old hasn’t fully developed something called Theory of Mind yet, which is the ability to understand that other people’s beliefs, desires, and knowledge may differ from their own. The 3-year old thinks that everyone else knows what they know, sees what they see and feels what they feel. This can cause some problems for the 3-year old in the following areas:

  • Understanding why others act a certain way
  • Conversations and story-telling
  • Understanding character perspectives in books/movies
  • Making friends
  • Engaging in pretend play with others

How can I test if my child has developed Theory of Mind yet?

While the development of the Theory of Mind doesn’t happen overnight, it usually occurs between the ages of 4 and 5. Some children with developmental delays such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Language Impairment or Attention Deficit Disorder can have difficulty developing Theory of Mind.

Watch this video to find out how to test your child.

You can develop a ‘False Belief Test’ similar to the one in this video.

Step One. Show your child a box (tissue, crayon or lolly/candy box). Ask them “What do you think is in the box?” (for the purpose of this article I will use a tissue box). The child should reply “Tissues

Step Two: Show the child what is in the box, by pulling out a pencil (or any other foreign object).

Step Three: Put the pencil back in the box and introduce a teddy into the conversation. Tell the child that teddy has been asleep the entire time and just woke up. Ask the child “What will Teddy think is in the box?” If the child answers “teddy will think that there is a pencil is in the box” then they still haven’t developed the Theory of Mind yet. The child thinks that Teddy knows exactly what they know, so it must be a pencil. If the child answers “Teddy will think there are tissues in the box” then they have developed Theory of Mind as they understand that most people would think there are tissues in a tissue box, even though they themselves have found out otherwise.

How can I help my child to develop Theory of Mind?

Children begin to learn skills in infancy and early childhood that assist in their development of Theory of Mind. As a parent or early childhood educator there are many things you can do to assist in this development:

  • Use language that refers to thinking and feeling e.g. “Oh, Sam looks happy, he must have really liked his new present’
  • Get down face-to-face with your child when playing with them so they can ‘tune-in’ to your facial expressions
  • Role play with your child so that they can think and act out how another person would behave “e.g. mummy, daddy, doctor, fireman, teacher etc.’
  • Utilise symbolic play (if a child holds a block up to their ear as a phone they are involving two opposing thoughts in their mind. It’s a block, but it is also a phone).
  • Engage in joint attention (sharing an interest in the same object or activity e.g. playing with blocks together, looking at a truck on a construction site)
  • Provide many opportunities for unstructured child-directed play
  • Talk about characters’ thoughts and feelings in books and movies
  • Expose them to stories with surprises, secrets, tricks where the child has to think about other people’s perspectives (e.g. While the 3-year-old knows that the wolf is dressed up like Grandma, Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t)

It is important to remember that each child is different and will develop at their own pace. Before the Theory of Mind is fully developed, they won’t have the capacity to put themselves in someone else's ‘mental’ shoes. So, just keep that in mind the next time your 3-year old wants to tell you a story, buy a birthday present or have a conversation on the phone!

“Every child is gifted. They just unwrap their packages at different times” - unknown


Astington, J., & Edward, M. (2010, August). Social Cognition. Retrieved from Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development: http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/social-cognition/according-experts/development-theory-mind-early-childhood

Grace, E. (2012, August 29). The Young Child's Theory of Mind. Retrieved from Kid's Development: http://www.kidsdevelopment.co.uk/youngchildrenstheoryofmind.html

Lowry, L. (2016). The Hanen Centre. Retrieved from “Tuning In” to Others: How Young Children Develop Theory of Mind: http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/tuning-in-to-others-how-young-children-develop.aspx

Lowry, L. (2016). Thinking about Thinking: How young children develop theory of mind. Retrieved from The Hanen Centre: https://www.hanen.org/MyHanen/Resource-Centre/Articles/Research/Thinking-about-Thinking--How-young-children-develo.aspx

What are your experiences?

I would love to hear from you!

Please comment below with any of your own experiences with children and the Theory of Mind. Did you perform the "False Belief Test"? And how did it go?

or any other thoughts or comments about the article would be kindly appreciated....

Thanks, Renee.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles