At some point between 15 and 24 months of age, the strong sense of self that you helped your baby establish through attunement and mirroring matures into self-awareness. Your baby is self-aware when he understands that he is separate, physically and mentally, from other people and from the world around him, and they are separate from him. He realizes that he has his own thoughts and his own feelings, that his behaviors have an impact on his environment, and that the same is true for other people.
The “Rouge Test”, described in a 1972 article in “Developmental Psychobiology,” skillfully demonstrated this evolution. Mothers whose babies took the test dabbed their babies’ noses with rouge. Each mother then placed her baby in front of a mirror. Younger babies reacted to the rouge as if they were looking at another baby in the mirror. Older babies (some as young as 15 months and nearly all by the age of 24 months) recognized that the rouge was on their own nose; they recognized themselves in the mirror and thus demonstrated self-awareness.
Not surprisingly, the emergence of self-awareness coincides with the emergence of self-aware emotions, such as pride, guilt, embarrassment, and shame. Self-awareness also coincides with developing language. Language that your baby uses to label himself (I, me, mine), to label others (his, yours, hers), and to name his feelings and actions supports his blossoming self-awareness.
Self-awareness is the core skill on which the other essential emotional skills rely. Your baby must be aware of himself in order to be confident, to empathize, and to self-regulate. Here are a few exercises to encourage your baby to develop self-awareness:
- Name your feelings—When interacting with your baby, tell him what you are feeling: “When I see you smile, I feel happy and I smile, too.”
- Name his feelings and reflect them back to him—When he shows an emotion, ask him to name it if he is old enough. Ask, “What are you feeling?” Then acknowledge the emotion he names: “So, you are feeling sad.”
- Name what others are feeling—When reading a book or watching a movie, talk with your child about how a character is feeling, how those feelings affect the character’s actions, and whether the character could have acted differently despite that feeling.
- Introduce other points of view—When your child gets into a conflict with a sibling or a friend, encourage him to express how he felt and to imagine how his sibling or friend felt. What was each person feeling and thinking? Why?
- Give him choices—Let your baby initiate actions and experience the outcomes. Allow him to choose which toys to play with, which book he wants at bedtime, what to wear, which part of his dinner he will eat first, and so on.
Doing these exercises with your baby will probably increase your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, in addition to his. As with any skill, self-awareness is never “perfect,” and it takes consistent practice. Even for adults, it is easy to get caught up in a situation or an emotion and forget to be mindful. You can model an appropriate response in cases like this by taking a deep breath and getting back in touch with your feelings and your situation. Self-awareness helps both you and your baby maintain balance.