Why is it so difficult for some children to make friends? Even children who are not popular often can develop close relationships with one or two peers. But the friendless child seems unable to find anyone who wants to get to know them better, putting that child at risk for poor mental health outcomes while they are in school and also when they become adults.
A new study in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology finds that friendless children from 5-7 years old have an exceptionally poor grasp of “theory of mind” (ToM).
ToM is an awareness that people’s behavior is shaped by their inner thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires and that these may be different than their own. This awareness is a social skill often referred to as the ability “to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
If a colleague is testy with us, we can sometimes appreciate that it is not what we said, it’s just that our colleague is having a rough day. If we are standing in a long ticket line and get pushed, we often chalk it up to inattention rather than aggression because we are guessing the person behind us means no harm.
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The team of researchers examined 5 other predictors of mutual friendship (emotion understanding, spontaneous helpfulness/prosocial behavior, ability to delay gratification, verbal ability and sociometric popularity status within the peer group as a whole) but concluded that poor grasp of ToM was the most significant predictor. Popular children are not immune from the state of friendlessness. In this sample, 23% of popular children were rated as having no friendships while 52% of group-rejected children had a friend.
“Deemed one of the most significant developmental milestones of early childhood, it (ToM) is traditionally assessed using standard inferential false belief (FB) tests requiring explicit predictions (via speech, pointing etc.) about the actions or thoughts of protagonists with FBs that the child being tested does not share,” the researchers write.
To assess ToM of the 114 children who participated in the study, researchers showed the children illustrated storybook vignettes and then asked questions about the protagonists belief-based actions and emotions.
“Given that FB tests are quick and easy to administer and highly reliable, they might prove a useful addition to the assessment repertoires of therapists and school counselors concerned with early intervention to prevent chronic friendlessness, although of course not constituting an adequate substitute for a comprehensive diagnostic work-up,” the researchers write.
The research team from Australia, the UK and The Netherlands conducted a 2-year prospective longitudinal study of children from age 5 to 7 years attending 3 inner city schools in Sydney, Australia
Children were asked to nominate their top 3 “best friends” in the class in separate interviews. Cross-gender nominations were permitted. Children were categorized as having reciprocated friendships if their #1 friend named them as #1 friend (n=28) or if they appeared on the top-3 list of children they named as their top 3 friends (n=53). When children did not appear on the lists of their top 3 friends, they were identified as friendless (n=33).
While some children in the study lost or gained friendships from ages 5 to 7 (46 had reciprocal friendships at both time periods, 20 had a reciprocal friend at 7 but not at 5 and 21 had a reciprocal friend at age 5 but not at age 7), a few children remained friendless at both time periods (n=9).
Children were evaluated for the other predictors in the study with the following measures: emotion understanding–the Test of Emotion Comprehension (TEC), spontaneous helpfulness/prosocial behavior–video of emotion understanding–the Test of Emotion Comprehension (TEC), spontaneous helpfulness/prosocial behavior–video of free play session with peers sharing a large toy zoo, verbal ability–Test of Early Language Development (TELD-3). To evaluate delayed gratification, children were told they would be collecting stickers and had to choose between getting one sticker now or two later. To gauge a child’s popularity, researchers used a sociometric interview technique which is widely used to assess children’s standing in their peer environment. Each child, interviewed individually with photographs was asked to indicate which 3 children in their class they liked to play with the most and which they liked to play with the least.
Unfortunately, children who have poor ToM have difficulty developing this ability because since they do not have close relationships with peers they also do not have the same opportunities to get to know how someone else thinks and feels. In preschool, ToM can be enhanced with brief, targeted interventions along with playgroups and social-skill-building exercises.