Children’s Growing Identity: Cultivating Self-Awareness to Inspire Confidence

By Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.

In those last sweet days of summer, Mom Margaret wanted to do something enjoyable with both kids in addition to the typical flurry of school supply shopping. But she hesitated to propose an outing when she noticed that ten-year-old Olivia was slinking around the house seeming down. When Margaret asked her about it, she snapped. “Mom! I’m fine.” After giving Olivia a little time and space, Margaret approached her gently, “Seems like you’ve been worried or upset lately. Are you okay?” Despite her delicate prodding, Olivia shrugged her shoulders and innocently looked at her mom. “I don’t know,” she said genuinely perplexed. “Are you upset about your friends?” She had been hanging out with neighbors all summer long and maybe they had an argument, Mom guessed. But no, that wasn’t it. “Could it be,” asked Mom, “anticipating the school year starting and all that goes along with it?” Olivia was no longer quiet but launched into her many worries. Ah, jackpot. Would she like her new teacher? Would she fit into her old group of friends or could she make new ones? What if she failed the new advanced placement math class they moved her in to?

Frequently as parents, we feel like we havAe to poke, prod, and pry — but not too hard, and not too obviously! — in order to discover the true feelings our children are evidencing through their words and actions. We know something’s wrong. But what? Many times, children are not aware themselves, as was the case with Olivia. Her mom allowed her the safe space to reflect on what was really going on, and she was able to figure it out with her support.

At each age and stage, children are growing their self-awareness. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines self-awareness as “the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence.” This includes approaching challenges with the intent to learn from them and the optimism that, with hard work, one can meet any challenge. And children are not born with the ability to identify, understand, and articulate their emotions. That skill is built over time through interactions with parents/care givers. The more intentional parents become about teaching children what and how they are experiencing emotions, how they can interpret situations — and realize they have choices in how they interpret situations — the greater the child’s self-awareness becomes.

Self-awareness is equally important to grow in ourselves as parents yet is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated skills. In fact, a recent poll of Montana parents statewide were split on the issue, half saying they had a strong sense of self-awareness and half saying they had low-to-moderate self-awareness. Consider that no one person has total self-awareness. In other words, we all have blind spots to our feelings and our thoughts and how they impact our actions. But helping our child(ren) grow, their self-knowledge will impact every other critical social and emotional skill as they grow in their competence, confidence, and ability to develop healthy relationships with others.
Because children learn social and emotional skills first by watching the caring adults in their lives, parents can become more intentional about growing their own self-awareness as an important step. Post feelings words or photos of facial expressions on the refrigerator as a reminder to articulate them. Also, write down and reflect on the most challenging parenting moments when we get angry or upset. What triggered the feeling? Why did it feel so strongly? Did we react in a constructive way and if not, how can we choose a better reaction the next time? These reflections can strengthen our own self-awareness modeling the skill we want to promote in our child(ren).

Because back-to-school time is a major transition for all students, it can be an emotionally-charged time. Understanding of our child’s mental and emotional exhaustion at the end of a new school day or his anxiety over all that’s new can go a long way toward supporting this time of change.

Check out the following tips for parents on how to build this critical competence at each age.

For 3- to 5-Year-Olds: Develop a Feelings Vocabulary and Cultivate Body Awareness.
While our young children are becoming competent with language use, they are only at the beginning stages of developing their feelings vocabulary. In fact, that body takeover that occurs when they are upset can further fuel their upset as they feel out of control. Though we’ve heard the phrase “use your words!” uttered to young ones, this expectation goes beyond their developmental capacity. Consider the fact that mature adults can struggle to name what they are feeling when highly upset, so we shouldn’t expect that of children. Instead, support their learning. When seeing a furrowed brow, ask: “It looks like you’re worried. Is that right?” Make a point of using feeling words in family life to give young children practice. And also, call out physical symptoms when they are seen. “Your ears are red. Are you feeling tired?” Or “your tummy seems to hurt when you are worried. Are you feeling worried?” These simple reflections can help a young child cultivate self-awareness as they become better able to understand, express, and seek support for what they are experiencing.

For 6- to 8-Year-Olds: Reflect on Self-talk.
Did you know that the emergence of self-talk happens between kindergarten and first grade? Children are attempting to figure out the rules in all aspects of their lives — in the classroom, in family life, and with their friends. Self-talk aids this self-regulating process. Whereas we once had to say, “Don’t climb on that wall. It’s dangerous,” now a child will utter to himself, “Mom said this is dangerous. Don’t do it.” But as we know, self-talk can also become self-defeating. If a child approaches an academic challenge with an “I can’t do it” refrain playing in their head, the chances are slim that they’ll meet that challenge. So how can we call out self-talk and reflect on it? If we see a child repeatedly struggling, maybe ask, “What are you telling yourself?” Let the child know that self-talk is normal, important even. But when those inner voices turn destructive, that’s the time to turn them around. Instead ask, “what can you say to yourself to help you figure out that problem or meet your challenge?”

For 9- to 12-Year-Olds: Learn the Conversation Two-Step. One: Empathy, Two: Reframe.
A central theme of this age group is their growing social awareness and the anxiety that comes with attempting to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Change is upon these pre-teens as they deep dive into puberty and the many physical, emotional and mental changes that accompany it. They feel a heightened vulnerability that can lead them to confusing conclusions about how others perceive them and what they think of themselves. So when our child comes to us with a concern about a friend, listen and reflect back with empathy. “Sounds like you are feeling rejected by your friend’s cold shoulder in the hallway.” That supports their big feelings. But then, help her reframe her thinking by asking open-ended questions. “What do you think your friend was feeling? Is there anything going on in her life that could be making her upset? Are you sure this had to do with you or could it be more about her own stresses?” Offer those questions without expectations of an answer. This not only offers the child the opportunity to strengthen her empathy skills, she’ll also grow in her social and self awareness as she realizes that particularly her negative interpretations are not always accurate. She may be more liked and accepted than she thought!

For 13- to 15-Year-Olds: Help Teens Discover Their Anchor.
Teens spend much of their time comparing themselves to others to figure out how they will define themselves and what their role might be in their friend nucleus. As they pull away asserting their independence, they are experimenting with the many variations of who they could become attempting to envision their future adult self. This is the time when they need an anchor. What will help offer direction and serve as a steady internal guide as they grow their identity into emerging adulthood? Reflect on their sense of meaning and purpose. What’s most important to them? How can they see themselves contributing to the world? What specific gifts can they give to others and to the larger world? If they looked back on their life at the end, what about who they became would give them great pride? Asking these questions provokes their thinking to help them grow their sense of purpose. They begin to see their potential as a significant contributor. This sense of purpose can guide their big and small decisions as they face increasingly complex risks and challenges.

All of these ways of supporting and reflecting on a child’s feelings and interpretation of others’ feelings can assist in her growing identity. Children can begin to define themselves as ones who can face challenges head on with a positive outlook, who understand the messages they are receiving from their feelings and can communicate them in ways that support their needs, and figure out who they are independently becoming and how they might actively contribute their best to the world. Self-awareness builds confidence. With support, each child is eager and ready to uncover the many gifts and powers that lie waiting within them!

About The Author: Jennifer S. Miller, M.Ed., author of the popular site, Confident Parents, Confident Kids, has twenty years of experience
helping adults become more effective with the children they love through social and emotional learning. She serves as a writer for Tools for Your Child’s Success, a statewide media campaign to educate parents on social and emotional learning. Her book, “Confident Parents, Confident Kids; Raising Emotional Intelligence in Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers” is available now for pre-order.

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