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December

Childhood Theory of Mind may predict bullying victimisation

Children’s Theory of Mind (ToM) has been identified as a robust developmental marker for later bullying victimisation. The authors at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London, say the findings are important for designing childhood intervention programmes. 

ToM is the ability to understand and predict other people’s behaviours based upon their beliefs and thoughts, a skill that underpins healthy social interactions. On average 27% of children and adolescents are involved in bullying every year worldwide as victims, bullies and bully-victims (children who have been bullied and have bullied others). 

Researchers at the IoP at King’s collected data from 2,232 UK children and their families over 7 years from ages 5 to 12 to help identify ToM and involvement in bullying. 

Sania Shakoor, PhD researcher at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Social, Genetic and Development Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre and first author of the paper says: ‘This is the first time the relationship between children’s theory of mind and bullying has been assessed over such a long time frame taking factors such as low IQ, and child maltreatment into account too’.

‘We found that poor ToM in early childhood was an important risk factor for children becoming victims and bully-victims, over and above low IQ or childhood maltreatment. However, for children who later became bullies, we found that the strongest predicting factor remained socioeconomic deprivation and child maltreatment.’

The authors suggest that having difficulties in understanding and predicting others’ behaviours based upon their thoughts and beliefs in early childhood, increases children’s vulnerabilities for becoming victims of bullying or bully-victims. 

Dr Louise Arsenault, senior investigator for the study at the IoP at King’s says: ‘Youth involved in bullying not only have difficulties with academic achievement but also have elevated levels of mental health problems such as depression and suicidal ideation. Therefore, it is important to identify and support, as early as possible, children who will become victims of bullies. 

Sania Shakoor adds: ‘Targeting developmental delays in ToM early in children’s schooling years could help reduce their vulnerability to becoming victims and bully-victims as they embark on their teenage years. In order to reduce children’s risk of becoming bullies, interventions would benefit from focusing on children exposed to socioeconomic deprivation and child maltreatment.’

The research is part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study which is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC). Additional support for the study was provided by the Jacobs Foudnation, the British Academy, the Nuffield Foundation, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

For full paper: Shakoor, S. et al. 'A prospective longitudinal study of children’s theory of mind and adolescent involvement in bullying' Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02488.x

For more information please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, email: seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk or tel: 0207 848 5377
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