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Parental Practices and Theory of Mind Development

Abstract

In the past three decades, psychologists have become increasingly interested in the study of theory of mind. This ability involves an understanding of different components of the mind (e.g., emotions, thoughts, beliefs) and of how they are related to human behavior. Several parents’ characteristics (e.g., attachment, mental-state talk) have been associated to children’s theory-of-mind development, but the variables and methods adopted are diverse and at times lead to inconsistent findings. The goal of the present paper, therefore, is to provide a literature review that can point both to possible ways in which discrepancies might be overcome and to promising research directions. Our review covers 78 research reports published in English between 1980 and 2011. Only empirical studies, using children as participants, were included in the review. Three main suggestions are offered for researchers, parents and practitioners on how to nurture young children’s understanding of mind: (a) to treat children as intentional agents, acting in a sensitive and responsive fashion to their mental states; (b) to speak to children about mental states in an elaborate and connected way, pointing out their causes and consequences, and explaining that these may be different for different people; and (c) to expose children to a wide range of emotions while being careful to not express over-frequent and inconsistent negative affect. One limitation of the present review, however, is that we do not look into how parental practices interact with certain individual characteristics of the child (e.g., personality, IQ and language skills). Future research should explore the multifaceted nature of these relationships and interactions.

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Acknowledgments

We are very grateful to Kylash Rajendran, George Holden and the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on this manuscript. This paper is based on research conducted by the first author at Universidade Federal de São Carlos.

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Correspondence to Debora de Hollanda Souza.

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Pavarini, G., de Hollanda Souza, D. & Hawk, C.K. Parental Practices and Theory of Mind Development. J Child Fam Stud 22, 844–853 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-9643-8

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Keywords

  • Parental practices
  • Theory of mind
  • Emotion understanding