Theory of mind (ToM) refers to the everyday understanding and prediction of other people’s behaviours based on their mental states (e.g., beliefs). Core ToM skills include the understanding of false beliefs, typically developed by age 4 (Wimmer & Perner, 1983
). More advanced skills such as understanding the influence of emotions on other people’s beliefs and embedded mental states (‘he thinks she thinks…’) are typically developed by age 7 (Perner & Wimmer, 1985
). The development of these skills helps shape healthy social interactions and considered important for decoding social cues and adjusting behaviours accordingly (Astington, 2001
). Therefore, children who show delays in developing ToM skills may be exposed to negative social interactions and have difficulties in establishing good relationships later in life.
Bullying is a negative social experience involving on average 27% of children and adolescents every year worldwide as victims, bullies or bully-victims (children who have been bullied and have bullied others) (Craig et al., 2009
). Children with poor ToM may be at greater risk of involvement in bullying because ToM skills underpin everyday social interactions. Firstly, poor understanding of other people’s intentions and emotions may jeopardize children’s ability to detect social cues that indicate non-reciprocal interactions, thus placing them at risk of being victimised or exploited. Secondly, poor ToM may increase the risk of bullying victimisation by affecting children’s ability to negotiate conflicts or stand up for themselves, resulting in being viewed as easy targets for threats and abuse. Thirdly, according to the social skills deficit model, children may be biased when they process social cues and interpret ambiguous situations as being hostile (Dodge, 1980
). Children may engage in bullying behaviours as a way of dealing with perceived conflicts.
Given the robust associations between bullying and mental health problems (Arseneault, Bowes & Shakoor, 2010
), it is important to investigate mechanisms by which children become involved in bullying. A better understanding of the developmental processes that influence children’s involvement in bullying may contribute to minimizing its adverse effects on mental health. Studies investigating ToM amongst victims of bullying and bullies are limited. Findings mostly relate to bullies, with victims representing an additional group, and little consideration being given to bully-victims. Research shows that victims of bullying have poor ToM (Gini, 2006
; Sutton, Smith & Swettenham, 1999
). Findings are mixed for bullies with some studies reporting advanced ToM skills for bullies who play a leadership role (Renouf et al., 2010
; Sutton, Smith & Swettenham, 1999
) and others showing deficits (Monks, Smith & Swettenham, 2005
). Being cross-sectional or spanning only a short period of time, these studies are limited in the extent to which they can inform about the influence of ToM on involvement in bullying over time. Using longitudinal data from 2,232 children, we tested the hypothesis that youth involved in bullying as victims, bullies and bully-victims in early adolescence had poor ToM in childhood.
The development of ToM is facilitated by factors including children’s language abilities (Cutting & Dunn, 1999
; Happé, 1995
), conversations about emotions within the family (Dunn, Brown, Slomkowski, Tesla & Youngblade, 1991
) and number of child-aged siblings (1–12 years) (McAlister & Peterson, 2006
). Reports of positive associations between the number of siblings and ToM are mixed, with suggestions that it may be the quality of the interactions with siblings that are important, rather than just their presence (Hughes & Ensor, 2005
). Furthermore, ToM and involvement in bullying have common antecedents such as family disadvantage and quality of mother-child relationship (Bowes et al., 2009
; Cutting & Dunn, 1999
; Wolke, Woods, Stanford & Schulz, 2001
). We therefore tested whether ToM was independently associated with involvement in bullying over and above child-specific and family factors.
Children with emotional and behavioural problems are more likely to have had a history of poor ToM (Hughes & Ensor, 2006
) and to have been involved in bullying (Arseneault et al., 2006
; Baker et al., 2008
). This highlights adjustment problems as a potential mechanism that may exacerbate the effect of poor ToM upon children’s involvement in bullying. For example, children with poor ToM who find it difficult to socialise and are therefore seen as being ‘odd’, may become easier targets for victimisation if they are also highly anxious and therefore unlikely to stand up for themselves. Similarly, children with poor ToM who have difficulty making the correct attributions for others’ behaviour may especially be likely to bully others if they are already prone to aggression. Using prospective data across 4 time points, we investigated if having adjustment problems in middle childhood moderated the risk of being involved in adolescent bullying amongst children with poor ToM.