April 11, 2012

Poor Theory of Mind at Age 5 Predicts Bullying Involvement at Age 12

Shakoor, S., Jaffee, S.R., Bowes, L., Ouellet-Morin, I., Andreou, P., Happé, F., Moffitt, T.E., & Arsenault, L. (2012). A prospective longitudinal study of children’s theory of mind and adolescent involvement in bullying. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53 (3), 254-261.

These authors were interested in whether children’s theory of mind predicts their later involvement in bullying. Theory of mind refers to abilities that children develop which allow them to understand that other people’s behaviour is dependent upon mental states (i.e. upon beliefs, desires, attitudes, knowledge etc which may or may not differ from the child’s own mental states). Basic theory of mind skills tend to be in place by the time children are 4 years old, and more complex skills by around 7 years old. The authors note that since these skills underpin our ability to successfully interact with other people, it is logical to assume that problems in the development of those skills might lead to specific difficulties – in this case, it they suggest it may lead to involvement in bullying behaviours either as an aggressor or as a victim or as both victim and aggressor.

The authors outline a number of ways that poor theory of mind could lead to involvement in bullying roles. For example, poor theory of mind may make it less likely that children will spot when peers are exploiting them or it may reduce children’s ability to resolve conflict.

There is existing research which has looked at relationships between theory of mind and involvement in bullying, but the authors point out that these are limited to cross-sectional studies or very short-term longitudinal studies. They have also neglected to include the bully-victim group (those who are both aggressor and victim).

In this study, the researchers included a sample of over two thousand English and Welsh children who were involved in a longitudinal twin study. This was a nationally representative cohort. Theory of mind was assessed at 5 years old and at that time a number of other family and child level factors was also assessed (e.g. IQ, early involvement in bullying maternal warmth, child maltreatment, number of siblings, etc). Adjustment was assessed at ages 7 and 10. Finally, involvement in bullying at age 12 was assessed. Across these measures, there was a mixture of self-, mother-, and teacher-reports.

At age 12, 33% were victims, 8% used bullying behaviours, 14% were bully-victims, and 45% uninvolved.  Compared to uninvolved children, all three other groups had poorer theory of mind at age 5. This effect was most pronounced for the group who were both aggressors and victims, and the effect was present even when all the other family and child level factors was controlled for. In addition, this effect was present regardless of the extent to which kids had emotional or behavioural problems in middle childhood (ages 7 and 10).

These results suggest that identifying developmental delays in theory of mind in early primary school years could form the basis of interventions designed to influence the development of bullying.

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