Self-Conscious Emotions in Children

Around the age of two, self-conscious emotions appear, which will guide the way children behave. Discover more in the following article.
Self-Conscious Emotions in Children

Last update: 01 November, 2020

Standing up and raising one’s head after an achievement, or shrinking away and looking down after bad behavior… These are just some of the first manifestations of self-conscious emotions in children.

Many times we don’t pay enough attention to complex emotions in children. And, therefore, we neglect our task of helping children manage them. Nevertheless, they’re very important emotions that have to do with children’s vision of themselves. They play a role in many social interactions and greatly influence how children will direct their behavior.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to spend time explaining to children why these emotions appear and how they can deal with them.

What are self-conscious emotions?

Self-Conscious Emotions in Children
Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

Guilt, shame and pride are the main self-conscious emotions that all human beings experience. They’re secondary emotions (derived from other simpler ones) and complex, meaning there are certain requirements for their appearance. The primary requirement is what gives name to this type of emotional experience: Children need to be self-conscious, or self-aware.


The terms “self-conscious’ or ‘self-awareness” can lead to confusion. The reality is that these emotions very often arise automatically, without consciousness to mediate the process. The origin of its name comes from the need for children to be aware of their own existence – to be able to recognize that they’re independent individuals, separate from their mother.

Children usually reach this milestone around the age of two. Therefore, it’s unlikely to find signs of self-conscious emotions in earlier stages. Between the ages of 16 and 24 months, infants begin to develop a rudimentary sense of self and this is when these emotions begin to emerge.

Several studies have shown that only children who were able to recognize themselves in a mirror showed signs of shame, the earliest of the self-conscious emotions.

Evaluation of oneself

At the same time, the fundamental feature of these emotions is the presence of some kind of evaluation relative to one’s self. In order for guilt, shame or pride to appear, children must have internalized some criteria about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable with respect to the way they behave.

Based on these criteria, they evaluate their own behavior and this gives way to an emotion. If their behavior meets their criteria, they’ll consider it a success and experience pride. On the contrary, if they act against these internalized values, they’ll interpret it as a failure and feel guilt or shame.

However, we mustn’t forget that these standards or norms that differentiate right from wrong are different in every culture and even in every person. It’s here that the work of parents becomes relevant.

The family nucleus is the main reference for children in the construction of their values. The reactions that their parents have to their behavior will allow them to identify what’s right and what’s wrong. In the same way, by observing the acts and emotions of their parents, they’ll internalize certain rules of conduct.

Self-Conscious Emotions in Children

Self-conscious emotions in social relationships

Finally, let’s remember the important role that self-conscious emotions play in social relationships. It’s thanks to them that we preserve and repair our relationships with others. We direct our behavior to avoid shame, repair guilt, and achieve pride. Therefore, if we want our children to enjoy good interpersonal skills, we must teach them to relate to their self-conscious emotions.

First of all, we must give a place and a definition to these emotions in the minds of little ones. Having a wide emotional vocabulary is an essential step to learn how to manage emotions.

We can explain to our children, with daily examples, in which moments each of the emotions appears. And, above all, we should emphasize that none of these appears to make us suffer, but rather to guide us on how we should act.

Pride appears to show us that making an effort in school, even though it’s costly, is worthwhile. Shame helps us to know how to keep our manners in formal situations and to relax when we’re with friends. And guilt appears to show us that we’ve hurt someone we love and must make amends.

If we talk to them about emotions from a young age, our children will learn to identify them in a much simpler and natural way and use them to their advantage.


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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.