Great Kids, Great Parents

Infant/Child Development and the Importance of Children's Feelings

Self-Awareness

Transition from infant to toddler.

Self-Awareness In the transition from infant to toddler, we suggested that three aspects of development are particularly important in helping us understand toddlers.  To summarize, at about 18 months (range around 1 - 3 years), these three issues emerge to herald the arrival of the toddler: mobility, self-awareness, and language.

We discussed mobility last month, and we will explore language next month. This month, we tackle self-awareness, a profound developmental advance which is intertwined with both mobility and language.

The Developmental of Self-Awareness The neurobiological and psychological triggers for self-awareness have not yet been clarified. What we do know is that this occurs around 1 – 3 years. The child begins to know her own name and refer to herself by name. The child will begin to look in the mirror and realize she is looking at herself.  She will also make clearer her own likes and dislikes, needs and wishes.

Evidence for Increased Self-Awareness As the well-known infant researcher Daniel Stern notes, at about 18 months children begin to show evidence of self-awareness. This evidence includes: infants’ behavior in front of a mirror, their use of verbal labels for self, and empathic acts (See The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985). Regarding the studies of children and mirrors, here is how Stern describes what happens to a child at around 18 months:

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Prior to the age of eighteen months, infants do not seem to know that what they are seeing in a mirror is their own reflection. After eighteen months, they do. This can be shown by surreptitiously marking infants’ faces with rouge, so that they are unaware that the mark has been placed.  When younger infants see their reflections, they point to the mirror and not to themselves. After the age of eighteen months or so, they touch the rouge on their own faces instead of just pointing to the mirror (p. 165).

There are other ways in which children give evidence of increased self-awareness. For instance, they now begin to use pronouns – I, me, mine – to refer to themselves. They may begin to use proper names, including their own. They are also increasingly capable of empathic acts, demonstrating their increased sense of being an object who can be experienced by another.  

Self-Awareness and Language Language and self-awareness are profoundly intertwined.  
In the midst of the onset of language, it is useful to recognize that a normal part of a child’s developmental process is the struggle to establish him- or herself as an independent autonomous person… someone separate from the parents and someone with feelings and opinions that are distinct and sometimes in conflict with the parents’ own feelings and wishes. This increasing separateness and self-awareness often comes in this package: “No!”

We bring this topic up now because it is so connected to language. The well-known psychoanalyst John Gedo, M.D., put it this way: “Self-awareness is only achieved toward the end of the second year of life, in parallel with the acquisition of verbal communication.” He further elaborated on this theme of language and self-awareness by commenting on the significance of putting words into feelings: “At this stage, children also become capable of learning a system of symbols for the affects; as a result, they are enabled to achieve emotional self-awareness.”

Summary A major development in the transition from infant to toddler involves an increase in self-awareness. The child seems to become a person – with interests and likes and dislikes. This change gives parents a remarkable opportunity to help the child find her own direction, which in turn will benefit the child for the rest of her life.

This developmental step can also be tough for parents – their child is beginning to separate and become his/her own person. For parents, this separation can feel like both a gain and a loss.

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist and adult and child/adolescent psychoanalyst. He is author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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