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Self-Awareness for Kids and Grownups

By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson

Sometimes I'm with my kids (or driving in traffic or talking to my husband or...) and suddenly I'll start feeling angry or frustrated or sad -- and I don't understand where that came from. Other times, our preschooler will just start lashing out but he can't say what's bothering him. Any ideas?

Great question! You're talking about self-awareness, which is one of the five essential inner skills (the others are letting go of painful experiences, insight into oneself, taking in positive experiences, and choosing well).

Although these inner skills get much less attention than the outer ones - like long division, writing business letters, or driving a fork lift - they make a much bigger difference in a person's lifetime happiness, income, and contribution to others. So it pays to help children get good at them...and to get good at them ourselves. This is a profoundly important idea for every family.

For example, a toddler who can notice early on that she's getting frustrated and go to her mom for comfort is going to be happier (and easier to raise) than one who builds up tension and anger to the point that it explodes and overwhelms her. Similarly, a parent who can sense the softer feelings of being let down beneath the surface of anger is going to be a lot more effective in communicating with his or her partner.

Everybody's self-aware, to some degree -- and here are some ways to get even better at it.

For Children

  • Adjusting your feedback to the age of the child, mirror back what he or she is experiencing. For example, you could say "Wheee!" exuberantly in tune with an infant breaking into a smile. Or you might sigh in quiet sympathy with a teenage daughter who's frustrated with one of her friends. Children come to see themselves in large part through being mirrored by their parents.

  • Accept your child's experience as it is; that will help him accept it, too, which is necessary for complete self-awareness. Separate what a child is feeling inside, which is always alright, from how he behaves, which can be good or bad.

  • Accept that children are usually more aware of themselves than they can put into words; their verbal abilities lag behind their self-knowledge.

  • In appropriate ways, describe your own experience to your child, like "Well, mommy feels both sad at missing you while you are in childcare but also happy at being able to help make money for the family." Get across the idea that feeling two ways at once is normal and OK.

  • Take a moment at meals to be aware of oneself and the food - perhaps combined with a religious blessing - before diving in.

  • When something is bothering a child, try to get him to describe his experience in age-appropriate detail. Focus on her experience, not the circumstances and what she ought to do. Just that alone often helps a child feel better.

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