By Talaris Institute
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Toddler trying on tiara
Sometime between 15 and 24 months, children become more self-aware. Self-awareness can lead to feelings of embarrassment – a normal and important part of emotional development.

For example ...

Sammy is 20 months old, and he just got a new outfit from his grandmother. She helps him put it on, and then stands back to look at him.

‘Isn’t he cute in that outfit? Everybody look at Sammy in his new outfit!’

Sammy smiles, but he’s clearly not comfortable with all the attention. Nervously, he looks down and plays with a button on his shirt. He looks around the room, glancing at people and then looking away again. He blushes a little, shifting his weight from side to side.

Sammy is embarrassed. A few months ago, Sammy might have happily danced in front of a dozen adults, but now his reaction to all the attention is different. He’s showing what’s called ‘exposure embarrassment’, a feeling that comes when children are aware that they have become the object of other people’s attention. His father, seeing this embarrassment, takes Sammy out of the spotlight and together they play with a toy.

For parents and caregivers, Sammy’s new reaction to his family’s pride is a moment worth celebrating. Sammy’s embarrassment shows that he has reached an important new stage in his emotional development. He’s become more self-aware, and that’s quite an achievement.

With this new self-awareness, Sammy also experiences new emotions like empathy and envy.

Testing for self-awareness

Most babies love mirrors. If you hold a baby in front of a mirror, the baby might smile, pat the glass, or even try to lick the reflection. The baby might see you in the glass and give you another big, heart-warming smile.

Mirrors also make great scientific tools, helping us understand when children reach new levels of self-awareness and how certain emotions develop.

In one experiment, researchers asked a group of mothers and their babies, aged 9-24 months, to play in front of a mirror:

  1. The researchers watched to see how each baby acted when placed in front of a mirror.
  2. Each of the mothers pretended to wipe dirt off her baby’s face – but they were really putting a small dab of rouge on the tip of the baby’s nose.
  3. The babies were placed in front of the mirror again, to see what they would do. Would they notice the red spot on their noses? Would they recognise that something was different about their faces and try to wipe the red spot off?

How embarrassment develops

Before they’re 15 months old, babies don’t seem to recognise themselves as themselves in the mirror. These young babies stared at their reflections and might have found the face familiar to them, but they didn’t react differently when they saw the red spots on their noses.

By 24 months, all the babies tried to touch or wipe their noses. These babies knew that they were the same as the baby in the mirror! They had reached a new level of self-awareness.

The connection between self-awareness and embarrassment
Researchers also studied children’s self-awareness as a way to learn about emotions like exposure embarrassment.

First, they used the rouge test to see which of the babies tried to touch or wipe the red spots on their noses. Then they overly complimented the children to see if they would get embarrassed. For example, the children were told many times that they were smart, cute, had beautiful hair and lovely clothes. Other children were asked to dance in front of a group of unfamiliar adults.

The children who touched their red noses in the mirror were the only ones who showed exposure embarrassment. Those who didn’t touch their noses did not show signs of being embarrassed.

These experiments show that a certain level of self-awareness is needed before children experience emotions like embarrassment, empathy and envy. Once children are aware of themselves as individuals, they become more sensitive to the ways people might see them. They also become more aware of how people think differently, and that other people might have feelings that are different from their own. This awareness provides a foundation for emotions like empathy.

Helpful parenting tips

  • As children near their second birthday, it’s clear that they are growing up. With these new ‘big people’ emotions, children show another amazing stage of development. 
  • Learn to recognise and celebrate these new emotions as they begin to emerge. 
  • Help your children by naming these new emotions (embarrassment, envy, empathy and so on) and teaching them healthy ways to deal with them. 
  • Every child is unique. Some children experience exposure embarrassment more strongly than others. Some children show extreme embarrassment around this time, and these children tend to be more shy or inhibited later. 
  • Some children might find embarrassing situations fun, while others will be very uncomfortable. If your child gets embarrassed easily and is uncomfortable, avoid situations that will bring out these feelings.
  • Above all, enjoy this new phase of growth. Share in the new experiences your child is discovering and the new feelings that are emerging. This is a great time to help your child learn about embarrassment, envy and empathy and how to handle these emotions. By sharing these new emotions, you’ll have new opportunities to grow closer to your child.