It may be hard to imagine a toddler feeling self-conscious. When they tear their clothes off in public and belt out their favorite song, for example, you might assume they’re not capable of embarrassment. However, researchers who previously thought that feelings of self-consciousness don’t appear until ages 4 or 5 are now learning that children can experience these complex emotions much earlier.
What Are Self-Conscious Emotions?
The primary emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear and anger, appear during a child’s first year of life. But as children begin to realize that they have a “self” and they’re different from others, the secondary or self-conscious emotions begin to form. Self-conscious emotions include embarrassment, guilt, jealousy, empathy, and pride. One of the reasons it’s so hard to detect these emotions in toddlers is because they don’t show or verbalize them the same way older children do. But studies on early social-emotional development are beginning to shine a light on how the emergence of self-awareness in young children can initiate feelings of self-consciousness.
Research on the Development of Self-Conscious Emotions
For years, the social-emotional world of a toddler was fundamentally unknown territory. Thankfully, over the last decade, more child development experts have devoted time to studying how emotions slowly begin to materialize throughout early development. One study found that babies as young as 10 months old can tell the difference between adults giving them direct attention and those showing disinterest. The babies in this study continually chose to interact more with those making eye-contact and expressing interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean that babies care what adults think of them, but it does point to the preliminary stages of children adjusting their behavior according to the actions of others.
Another study examined the self-awareness of 144 toddlers between ages 14-24 months. Throughout the experiment, the participants played with toys while an audience of researchers either provided watchful attention or diverted their attention away. Results showed that the toddlers were more likely to show favorable behavior when they were being watched than when they thought they were alone. In addition, when the “audience” started to provide positive or negative feedback, the young participants put even more effort into modifying their behavior. This shows us that toddlers in this age range notice when they’re being observed, adjust their behavior accordingly, and use an observer’s feedback to consider their actions.
What Parents and Caregivers Need to Know
Despite the fact that we know toddlers do have self-conscious emotions, their “observable self” is still developing and they don’t have the ability to express what’s going on or understand why they feel the way they do. However, they are beginning to understand that they can be the object of another person’s attention. Around their 2nd birthday, toddlers are entering a world of fearing rejection and wanting to be accepted which, as humans, we can all understand.
The most important thing parents and caregivers can do is be aware of the emergence of these complex emotions. Try to create a safe space for your child to be themselves without judgment. When they start to show signs of emotions such as embarrassment, guilt or jealousy, acknowledge and normalize their feelings. (Our BabySparks activity Managing Embarrassment is a great place to start.) Most of all, remind them that they’re loved!
Remember that the emergence of self-conscious feelings is not a bad thing. It means children are beginning to care about how they’re perceived, and when nurtured in a positive way, it can contributes to emotional intelligence, self-esteem, and strong social skills.