The beginning of self-consciousness

It’s usually not there with you the moment you wake up, but by the time you finish singing in the shower, self-consciousness may have descended on your morning. Unlike you, though, there’s a good chance Baby has never met the feeling of self-consciousness in the entirety of his young life. He may be perfectly happy to pick his nose out in the open as the two of you move through your day now, but that could be about to change as he learns more about the world, and the reactions of the people in it.

At the essence of self-consciousness as it first develops, it’s just a toddler’s awareness that he has a self, and is a separate person from you, and from the other people around him. Where people run into trouble, from toddlers all the way up through adulthood, is when it comes to what are called “the self-conscious emotions,” like embarrassment, pride, guilt, and shame. These emotions aren’t directly related to a toddler’s actions, but are a result of his perception of what other people will think about his actions.

A self-consciousness timeline

One of the first recognizable signs that a toddler is beginning to develop an awareness of themselves as a separate person comes when he looks in the mirror and recognizes the child he sees there as themselves. A common test for this is to leave a smudge of color, like a lipstick stain, on his face before bringing him over to the mirror. If he thinks it’s that other toddler who’s silly enough to have a dirty face, he probably hasn’t made that mental leap yet. If he reaches up to rub the smudge away, congratulations, he is on his way to a lifetime of checking to make sure he doesn’t have spinach stuck between his teeth.

This milestone can come at a range of different times, but the connection usually clicks some time in the months leading up to his second birthday. It’s also around this time that toddlers start to become aware of other people’s reactions to their behavior. This awareness eventually leads to self-conscious emotions like pride, guilt, and shame. A toddler might show these emotions by apologizing or hiding after he has done something he shouldn’t, or by reacting with pride when he has done something he knows you’ll like.

Another sign of a toddler’s growing understanding of themselves as an individual comes with his growing language development – the use of self-referential language like “I,” “me,” and “my.” This type of language often also goes along with an understanding of the concept of ownership, which isn’t possible before an understanding of self.

Healthy ways to handle self-consciousness

Self-consciousness is a sign of Baby’s growing cognitive development, but it’s also not always a fun feeling. Shouldn’t Baby be able to dance around the house without worrying about how he looks, and try to say new words and try new skills without worrying that he will make a mistake, or do badly? Of course he should, and how you respond to his budding self-consciousness can help make sure that he does. Self-confidence and a sense of resilience are important counterbalances to develop alongside self-consciousness.

  • Lead the way: Baby looks to you and his other caregivers for clues about how to respond to situations, and situations he is embarrassed about are no different. If you’re hard on yourself, and you tend to dwell on your mistakes, there’s a good chance he will learn to do the same. On the other hand, if you stay calm, and do your best to learn from your mistakes before shrugging them off, he may learn that from you, instead.
  • Offer him a way to fix it: When Baby messes up, offering him something to do instead can be a good way to diffuse any self-consciousness he may be feeling, whether that means encouraging him to help pick up a friend’s block tower he may have just knocked into, or repeating a word he has just mispronounced back to him as a model, or prompting him to say “sorry” if he bumps into someone.
  • Walk the fine line: It’s not always easy to find the balance between not making too big of a deal about potentially embarrassing situations, and still taking your toddler’s feelings of self-consciousness seriously. One of the best ways to do this is just to follow Baby’s cues. If he seems embarrassed and like he is ready to move on from a subject, this might mean letting it go, even if you’re only teasing, or you think whatever Baby is embarrassed of is just cute. On the other hand, if he seems troubled by something, even if you don’t think it’s too big of a deal, like forgetting pajama day at his daycare, taking a little time to help him put the situation in perspective might be helpful.

Unless Baby is especially sensitive, there’s a good chance embarrassment won’t be a very big part of his life for a while, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind that he is learning more about the world every day, and this learning can come with all kinds of unexpected types of emotional growth.

  • N.D. Eggum-Wilkens, K. Lemery-Chalfant, N. Askan, H.H. Goldsmith. “Self-Conscious Shyness: Growth during Toddlerhood, Strong Role of Genetics, and No PRediction from Fearful Shyness.” Infancy. 20 (2): 160-188. Retrieved May 24 2017.
  • Rae Jacobson. “How to Help Kids Deal with Embarrassment.” Child Mind Institute. Child Mind Institute Inc. Retrieved on May 24 2017.
  • Michael Lewis. “The Self-Conscious Emotions.” Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development. CEECD / SKC-ECD, September 2011. Retrieved on May 24.
  • Susan A. Miller, Ellen Boothe Church, Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: How Children Develop Self-Concept.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Retrieved May 24 2017.
  • Josephine Ross, Douglas Martin, Sheila Cunningham. “How do children develop a sense of self?” The Conversation. The Conversation US Inc. October 17 2016. Retrieved on May 24 2017. 
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