How to Raise A Self-Aware Kid (But Not an Overthinking Neurotic)

Kids need to know who they are, and feel good about it, too.

Self-awareness — an innate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses — is not just a strength; it’s a skill. Children who develop a strong sense of self-awareness understand how their actions are perceived by others, know when to engage their strengths, know when to pull back, and discover areas in which they need improvement. They tend to have happier relationships and have more professional success (though a bit of psychopathy is not a bad thing if you’re targeting the C-Suite). In short, self-awareness is an important part of being a good human being and a happy one.

Raising self-aware kids requires a gentle hand and a deft touch. Too much prodding and parents are virtue-signaling; too little and kids don’t have a proper sense of their skills or who they are. It’s not easy, says Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale, Educational Board Advisory Member for The Goddard School, and award-winning author. But it is imperative to think about how lessons about self-awareness include it in day-to-day lessons.

Why Self-Awareness Matters
For a kid, being self-aware is a nearly unavoidable process, stresses Dr. Pruett. By the time kids are one year old, they’ve begun to suss out, literally, that they are a different being than the people around them. As that sense of self grows as kids develop, it becomes one of the main things that inures them against self-doubt. Most importantly, stresses Pruett, “There’s a back and forth that goes between our children pushing our limits and us pushing back. That helps them define who they are, in time and in space.”

Unless kids have an idea of what they like, what they’re good at, and who they are, they are not really functioning beings. So it’s incredibly important to help kids foster a sense of self that is age appropriate.

When Should Parents Start Teaching Kids About Self-Awareness?

As mentioned above, kids start to get an understanding of self-awareness pretty early on. But self-awareness isn’t a static target post-Theory of Mind, the developmental moment that typically takes place around age three when kids figure out that other people have their own thoughts. While helping four-year-olds have a sense of self is as easy as complimenting them on their ability to do puzzles or reminding them that they said their favorite television show was Paw Patrol, and giving them a sense of likes and dislikes, self-awareness in young adulthood requires not only a moral code, but the ability to admit mistakes and weaknesses. Most kids aren’t totally gonna get there. Patience is key.

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How to Model Self Awareness

  • Talk To Them About Their Interests and Strengths
    From the beginning, parents should take note of their kids interests and strengths and help kids create a world where they can engage with more of that stuff.“Parents who are telling their children, ‘I noticed you just love to do those puzzles; and let’s do some of those puzzles that you love to do,’ or, ‘I know you love yellow. It’s just your favorite color. Let’s find some yellow markers and make a welcome sign for your door,’ those statements help children feel defined. When we reflect back to our children on their traits, their tastes, their desires, and we articulate them, we are helping them develop a language and a vocabulary for being self-aware,” Dr Pruett says. Of course, this is pretty low-level stuff. The color yellow is good! But it’s the building blocks for creating kids who can articulate their likes, dislikes, strengths, and traits.
  • Go Big During the Toddler Years
    It’s easy to think that the pre-teen and teenage years are when kids are toying with self-awareness and their sense of self the most. Those are, after all, some of the toughest years for parents. Of course, teenagers have more power over their surroundings so as they experiment with who they think they might be, the damage or benefits could be far more extreme and immediate. But that instinct is not true, says Pruett.“The armageddon of self-awareness is toddler-hood, not being a teenager. It’s scarier in the teenage years, but we often call the ‘terrible two’s’ are really our children’s struggle for autonomy, and the desire to ‘be who I want,’” Pruett argues. So all of the temper tantrums and the ‘no’s’ and the refusal to brush their teeth because they don’t want to — that’s actually some really strong signs of a self-aware kid. Congratulations!
  • Be Very Careful With Modeling
    Unlike most other traits like being hardworking or empathetic towards others, self-awareness is not a trait that should be modeled too harshly. Pruett argues that modeling self-awareness sometimes becomes like value-signaling; parents are expressing what they think it means to be a person to their kids, instead of letting their kids figure it out on their own.“[Modeling self-awareness] is very hard to do neutrally. We’re usually conveying values when we’re talking about ourselves,” says Pruett. If a kid comes to a parent upset about not being invited to a birthday party, parents should tread very lightly.“If you go beyond, ‘I know how that feels,’ you’re adding a little too much spin. If you can leave it at empathy, rather than instruction, you’ve been really helpful to your child. But generally we go on to say, ‘And then Sally got the measles and nobody wanted to be near her and she had it coming because she was so mean to me.’” Don’t do that. Even if it’s true!“If you want to use your own experience, make it a very light, and quick reference, full of empathy, and that’s it.”
  • Don’t Worry If It Feels Like a Fight Sometimes.
    Children don’t develop awareness that they are different than the people around them until the end of the first year of life, around the same time that speech starts to develop. The first struggle is with pronouns. [Kids ask]: ‘Who are you and who am I? What is I? How is it different than you? Since you’re the one who has been raising me and caring for me what is the I?’” If that sounds a bit like a fight, it kind of is, says Pruett.“There’s a back and forth that goes between our children pushing our limits and us pushing back. That helps them define who they are, in time and in space. By the time they are preschoolers, they’re using phrases like, ‘I did it,’ when they tied their shoes. Now you know you’re on the track to self-awareness, because they feel like they have an act and committed an act, which has had an outcome that they desire and you desire. They begin to feel like active players in their world, achieving the things they want to achieve. Getting the food and attention they want,” he says. That is, of course, for better or for worse. Tying shoes is good. Screaming for french fries is annoying, but a good sign that kids perceive themselves as people in charge of their own reality.

How to Model Self-Awareness

Dr. Pruett offers an example from his own life, something that took place when his daughter was two-and-a-half. “My daughter and I just finished making some cookies together. We had a great time. It was time to move on to the next activity, and she just sat there in the kitchen and waited for me to leave.

I thought she was going to come with me. She said, ‘No, I stay here, Daddy.’ I said: ‘Oh, you want me to go?’ She said yes. I asked her why and she said she wanted a cookie. Basically, she knew that in my mind, I wouldn’t allow her to have more cookies before dinner. So, if I’m out of the picture, she can go ahead and do what’s on her mind. That’s a hint at self-awareness, that we’re not all thinking the same thing. It helps me if I know what’s on your mind especially if it’s different than what’s on my mind.

When Self-Awareness Goes Too Far
Self-awareness and self-esteem go hand in hand, and as kids grow up and go through puberty, those two qualities become more intertwined in more adult ways. Making sure that kids know their strengths and weaknesses is important, but if kids start to err on the self-loathing, it’s time for parents to kick it up a notch, compliment their kids on their strengths, and talk to them about their feelings.

And in an age where kids are constantly interacting with social media, this type of positive-talk is crucial to help kids not err into the self-loathing, says Pruett. Pointing to an example of body shaming, Pruett refers to it as “real aggression.”

“That’s taking someone’s core sense of who they are and beating them with it. That’s a step beyond shame, in my book, and shame is an interaction with another person. It’s not anything you arrive at on your own. It’s an interpersonal exchange. Social media brings shaming of friends to another level that no one would ever have dreamed, ten years ago. It’s out of control. A lot of teenagers and young people have no idea how to manage the way they’re being dealt with in social media.”

Parents need to step in. “Even if kids had a strong sense of self-regard and self-esteem, most kids get knocked off their feet the first time someone disses them or wants to treat them like crap on social media or say bad things about them,” he says. They need support.