Tag Archives: Theory of Mind

Friendship: Antidote to Bullying


In this posting, I will discuss the most substantial long-term solution to bullying. The best way to combat bullying is to support the capacity for friendship and children’s development of empathy. Empathy is a function of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability of the child to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and to realize that other people have minds of their own.

For example, the 5-yo boy (let’s call him “Sam”) described above was having trouble imagining the mind of his classmate (“Ben”). I discovered that earlier that day in playground time Sam had been involved in a running game with Ben and some other boys. Ben, who is a fast runner, was leading the pack. Sam has some motor insecurity that has held him back, and he has not developed the strength and skill to keep up with the other boys in running games. I am guessing that he was feeling like a “loser”, and his way of making sense of those “loser” feelings was to perceive Ben as being the cause of his “loser-ness” by claiming to be older than Sam was. Ben actually hadn’t said anything of the sort, but Sam’s feelings were so strong and unmanageable that he completely lost his 5-yo capacity for self-reflection (“mentalization”). He did not link his very sad and angry feelings to having been left in the dust in the running game of minutes before. He really perceived Ben as trying to best him by claiming to be older and thereby causing him to feel bad.

Empathy is a complex competency that begins in the early infant-caregiver relationship when the baby first comes to recognize and resonate with the emotions of the caregiver. Parents and teachers can continue to support the development of empathy by valuing empathic responses, by making “being a good friend” a family (and school) value. If this “family value” is established, parents and teachers can always fall back on it as a support when they are confronting bullying behavior. “In this school, we do not believe in treating others that way.” The reason this kind of explanation is such a showstopper is that you can’t argue with beliefs. Empathy can even be extended to the bully.

I would not call Sam a bully – nor do I think the term is appropriate for such a young child – but his behavior was definitely intimidating to Ben. If called into this situation with Sam puffing out his chest threateningly to Ben and calling him a baby and Ben quaking in his boots, his parent or his teacher might try to scaffold the recovery of Sam’s self-reflection, and therefore his empathy. They might try to help him imagine how Ben felt, and they might even elicit Ben’s help in doing that (“Tell Sam how you felt when he said that to you and stood so close to you”).

However, there is a potential pitfall. If Sam is too stressed, the adult’s words – kind and helpful though they might be – will not sink in. Sam cannot take in information when he is dysregulated. The kind words – if they are addressing the source of his distress – might even escalate his dysregulation, The adult must first help Sam (and Ben) calm down, feel safe, and then – maybe twenty minutes later – try again. There are many good children’s books that have friendship as a theme. Some classics are George and Martha, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Freddy the Pig.

Brooks, Walter R, Freddy the Detective, Overlook Juvenile Press, 2010.

Marshall, James, George and Martha (especially, the story of “Split Pea Soup”), HMH Books for Young Readers, 1974.

MacDonald, Betsy, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harper Collins, 2007.





The second subject that my mothers’ group asked that we discuss is that of “habits”. When I use the word “habit”, I mean a pattern of behavior that is hard to break even when you try very hard. We usually refer to the patterns we want to break as “bad habits”, but of course there are good habits, too. I like to use the principles of nonlinear systems theory to understand the establishment and maintenance of habits. That is not as complicated as it might sound.

Nonlinear systems theory says that “organization”, or patterns, emerge from the interactions of the component parts of a system (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In a family system, this would mean that when family members (parents, children) interact with one another, they create particular ways of behaving (patterns of behavior) that include characteristics of the individuals involved, their home environment, and the time (of day, month, and year). For example, what Sander calls the infant’s first organization, the diurnal sleep cycle, is established through the repetition of small caregiving acts – nursing, burping, bathing, and changing – that the caregiver and infant experience together, as they are repeated in the same order each day over and over again (Sander, 2008). When the baby grows older, the family establishes bedtime routines that parents and children tend to follow every night. Of course these rituals change with the age of the child and the time of the year, so that during school vacations the patterns usually loosen. Whereas families can typically describe to you their bedtime routines, they are usually not aware of the powerful significance of routines in their lives until something happens – houseguests, illness, a family trip – that disrupts the routine. It is then that the family recognizes the role of these patterns in the coherence of family life.

There are two other dominant characteristics of habits. The first has to do with motivation, or intention. Why would anyone intend to establish a bad habit or be motivated to maintain it, you might ask. Well, there are actually many reasons, and not surprisingly, most of them are out of awareness. Some of them are “non-conscious” in that they were never represented in language or other symbols in the brain and most of the time never will be. They usually have to do with efforts to escape perceived threat and are generated by the central nervous system in parts of the brain below the cortex (thinking part of the brain), such as what we refer to as “fight or flight”. You may wonder how fight or flight could qualify as a habit since it doesn’t happen all the time. I would respond that in highly stressed families, individuals feel threatened much of the time, and they develop a “habit” of reacting with aggression or running away (the flight may be a form of withdrawing or tuning out). People make up reasons to explain to themselves why they are behaving that way. For example, “I have to get him to school!” or “I am too tired to deal with this right now.” Even more insidious, they make up stories to explain why the other person (these “habits” originate in relationships) is causing them to behave that way, for example, “He is a little monster!” (Fonagy et al, 2005). Continue reading

Trouble on the Playground


This posting is the first in a series about a problem that challenges many parents that I know – how to help their child with problems on the playground or the lunchroom at school.

In this case, the child comes up to the parent and complains that kids were being mean to her at school. Now, of course, first you have to find out if this is correct. If it is true, it is an important problem and a subject for another blog. Here I am talking about a child who frequently perceives herself as a victim in social interactions whereas the teacher and you suspect that the real problem is the child’s difficulty negotiating a complicated social situation among her peers. Let’s imagine the case of a 9-year old girl, Sophie. The story the Sophie tells you will be something like this: “Janie was mean to me today and then Mrs. Jones was mean to me, too. I just can’t take it any more.”

Inside, you feel sad and frustrated at the same time. You have heard this story or one like it many times. Sophie has trouble keeping up with the rapidly flowing improvisational process of 9-year old girls on the playground. It is easier in the classroom, where there is structure – planned activities, assigned roles – but on the playground she can’t figure out to join a group, or when something changes in the fluid activity of the girls, she often seems to just get lost and drop out of the action.  As a result, Sophie frequently has no one to play with and has little success in initiating play with her classmates. You wonder why the teachers seem to disappear at recess, when your Sophie needs them more than ever. On top of everything, you are upset by Sophie’s including Mrs. Jones in the “mean” category. You thought that Sophie had a good relationship with Mrs. Jones, in contrast with her last year’s teacher, so this makes you feel even more disappointed.

Here are my suggestions for handling the situation. They derive from Peter Fonagy’s model of “mentalization” (Fonagy et al, 2011).

1. First, wait until she is calm to talk to her. If she is in an agitated state or begins to get into one when you begin to respond to her, comfort her and tell her that you will talk about it later. You also pay attention to your own feelings. If you are upset, you will not be able to comfort her, and talking to her calmly will be difficult.

2. Do not argue with her. That will turn you into a bad guy. For example, do not ask (even if you are thinking it), “Do you think you might have done something to make Janie upset before she was mean to you?”


3. Sympathize with her feelings. “It must be terrible to feel that everyone is against you!’

4. Break down her description of events into small pieces. Parent: “Help me understand. You were just playing a game with Ann, and Janie came up and asked if she could play with you, and you said, ‘No’.”  Sophie: “It was a game that only two people can play.” Parent: “Oh, of course. Only two people can play that game. But didn’t you just tell me that recently Janie didn’t save a place by her at the lunch table and you felt very sad?” Sophie: “Yes. She never saves me a seat, and I always save one for her.” Parent: “Hmm, but I guess you must felt kind of sad and left out when you had to sit at another table?” Sophie: “Yes, and I never do that to her.” Parent: “OK. But you know how bad it feels to be left out.” Sophie: “Yes.” Parent: “Just for a moment, what if we imagined that Janie felt left out when you were playing a game with Ann for only two people.” Sophie: “No, because it was for only two people.” Parent: “You are exactly right. The game was for two people, but I am guessing that Janie might have felt left out anyway just the same way you felt left out at the lunch  table, because there might have been a reason she didn’t save you a seat since I know Janie really likes you.” Sophie: “Well, she did say that she tried to save me a seat, but I didn’t believe her.” Parent: “I know. It is hard to believe someone when you feel so terribly disappointed.”

5. Slowly continue to introduce the inherent inconsistencies in her story (It may take several iterations of this experience to get to this stage) so that you can help her arrive at a version of the story that is not as black and white as she perceived it initially.

This process has been described by Fonagy and his colleagues and has as its goal the achievement of the developmental capacity of what they call “mentalization”, related to the cognitive psychology concept of “theory of mind” (TOM). TOM is demonstrated in the “false belief” experiment (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). In this experiment, a child is shown something deceptive (such as a doll in a crayon box). When a stranger comes into the room the child is asked what the stranger expects to find in the box. Three year olds generally said that the stranger will expect to find the doll, but five-year olds realize that the stranger isn’t privy to the deception and respond, “crayons”. This capacity to imagine another’s mind and realize that your own beliefs are not necessarily “real” vanishes in everyone in some contexts, such as under extreme stress, but it is hard for some children to achieve in the first place. That is not because they are unintelligent but because that particular developmental step needs extra help. Our imaginary “Sophie” might be perfectly capable of empathizing with another person when she is not stressed. but when she is stressed, such as when she is on the playground or lunchroom at school, she may lose this capacity. You can help your child by realizing that she is struggling with this part of her development and scaffolding this process.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist E, & Target M (2011). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, Kindle Edition.

Gopnik A & Astington J. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and appearance-reality distinction, Child Development 59:26-37.