Social cognition in childhood
: The relationships between Attachmnet-related representations, Theory of Mind and Peer Popularity

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Children’s ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions of other people, is an essential skill for their social interactions with peers and family members. Research has shown that although most young children will have developed a ’theory of mind’ or ability to ’mentalize’ by the time they are around four or five, there are individual differences in children’s understanding of their social relationships. This thesis explores two alternative models of children’s social cognitive processes that are thought to underlie their social interactions and uses a measure of peer popularity as an indicator of how they are functioning in their social world at school. Research findings from the perspective of children’s theory of mind and attachment theory have been significant in shaping our understanding of social cognitive processes and individual differences in social competence. However, because research on these constructs derives from largely separate research perspectives, it is not clear what connections there are between these two models of social cognition, or if their influence on children’s social competence is distinct or overlapping. Participants were primary school children, ranging from 3- to nearly 8-years-old and were assessed in two main studies at different time points to investigate these alternative models of children’s social cognitive processes. The results from study 1 indicated that the coherence of the attachment representations measure (MacArthur Story Stem Battery) namely ’story organisation’ was strongly and directly associated with peer acceptance but that the link between theory of mind and peer acceptance was indirect. In study 2, measures of attachment-related representations were found to be associated with theory of mind skills at baseline and follow up, but this was no longer significant once verbal ability was controlled for.
Children’s disciplinary attachment-related representations were found to be associated with teacher-rated problems amongst peers. Also, positive attachment-related representations were found to be associated with teacher-rated pro-social behaviour. Theory of mind, as expected, was found to improve with age and performance at baseline was associated with later performance on these tasks. Verbal ability was found to be significant in children’s performance on theory of mind tasks in all studies. findings in this thesis raise interesting questions about what narrative coherence means in children’s descriptions of their attachment relationships. How this relates to children’s verbal skills, conversations within the family and the way children conceptualise relationships in general is worthy of more detailed study. Clinical implications are drawn from the findings, particularly in relation to the recent developments in Mentalization Based Treatment interventions and the findings lend some support for the use of this intervention with children with poor attachments.
Date of AwardMay 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJohn Weinman (Supervisor) & Judith Dunn (Supervisor)

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