Cultivate the Trait: Self-Awareness
Our blog series Cultivate the Trait provides caregiving resources to support and amplify a different trait introduced in each Bravery issue. Issue 15 teaches self-awareness through artist Bernice Bing’s story and creative, mindful activities.
Guest blogger Sidu Arroyo-Boulter is a licensed professional counselor associate and a licensed school counselor specializing in relational issues, anxiety, and parenting. Seeing the limited support offered to new families, she pursued additional education and training in perinatal mental health.
She supports individuals and families in the school environment and in private practice while honoring their unique cultural practices. In addition, she offers parenting support through her online community @conscious.parents on Instagram, runs parenting groups and workshops, and lectures on various mental health topics. For more on parenting, follow Sidu at @conscious.parents or check out her blog, Conscious Parents Blog.
In infancy to preschool, a child depends on their caregivers for their basic needs and a sense of identity. Donald Winnicott, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst who coined the term "good enough mother," once said, "There is no such thing as a baby; there is a baby and someone."
While young children have a physical self-concept, they primarily derive their desires, feelings, and character from what they perceive their parents consider acceptable. When introspection and questioning are encouraged, a child develops a greater sense of who they are. If, however, they are discouraged from questioning, challenging, and reflecting, children learn to suppress their thoughts, beliefs, and questions and focus on others to tell them who they are. While a child who is hyper-focused on others will give parents temporary compliance, they lack the opportunities to form their sense of self.
The way parents interact with their children can influence the development of self-awareness. Children who can engage in introspection and see themselves objectively are more self-confident and demonstrate more self-control and decision-making abilities than their peers.
Here are five practical ways to help your child develop self-awareness.
- Talk about and normalize emotions often.
If we want our children to develop self-awareness, we must be willing to guide them in understanding their emotions. Model and teach your child that emotions are neither good nor bad. Emotions and feelings show up in us like clouds in the sky. When we observe them rather than hold onto them, they dissipate or give us clues about what we need. Helping your child learn about their emotions begins with assisting them to recognize and label their feelings. When we do so, we give them the tools necessary to reflect on their experiences and therefore choose their behaviors and actions in response to their emotions.
Suppose your child is whining and protesting about going to the movies, instead of, "You're acting ridiculous, stop it." try, "I see you're upset. I get it. You wanted to go to the movies. Today is not a good day for me to take you. Let's both work to calm our bodies, and then we can figure out something that works for us." Respond with empathy and compassion, then help your child explore what they are experiencing before jumping into a solution.
Learning about emotions and how to manage them is a lifelong process. Responding consistently enough with support will help your child use these skills independently and throughout their lifetime.
- Teach your child how to think, not what to think.
Encourage your child to hold multiple viewpoints about themselves and others by asking questions rather than telling them what to think. When your child comes to you with a concern about their body, appearance, or other personal matters before jumping into a solution or reassurance, help them explore the complexities of being human. When you respond in this way, you are helping your child not only develop self-awareness but build confidence. It may sound like, "Thank you for coming to talk to me about this. I can see this is important to you. Tell me more about what's on your mind? What do you think it means to be smart? Can there be different ways to be smart? Can someone be academically smart and another person be socially smart? Is there a difference in which one is "better"?
When you are watching television together and your child comments on how terrible the person is on the television, ask questions. What makes you say that? Do you think they were always like that? I wonder what their life was before them acting this way? I wonder if they are different when they are around someone else?
- Practice mindfulness.
Our world values speed and productivity. Children and adults are always encouraged to keep moving, learning, doing, and bettering themselves in external ways. Children and adults are overbooked and overscheduled now more than ever. While there is nothing wrong with improving ourselves and preparing our children for their future careers, not all growth happens through academics and extracurricular activities. Children grow and learn about themselves, their thoughts, beliefs, and relationships through quiet and stillness.
A consistent daily practice of mindfulness helps children turn inward and cultivate self-awareness. Traditional guided meditation is only one way to practice mindfulness, so no worries if your child doesn't enjoy sitting in a lotus position for thirty minutes.
When you are first beginning to teach mindfulness, start small and work your way up in time. Introduce mindfulness as an opportunity for everyone in the family to pause and practice stillness while keeping it realistic for your family. If you are beginning a mindfulness practice, your child may need your guidance, so invest in the early methods to help your child form their practice. A few ideas for beginners are mindful walks, mindful coloring, short guided meditations, mindful journaling, or breathing techniques such as counting backward from 10 or dragon breathing.
- Model and encourage perspective-taking.
Being able to see and understand another person's perspective is a form of self-awareness. We want to encourage children to reflect on their views, emotions, and beliefs and that of others. We can do so by first and foremost modeling perspective-taking. When you are frustrated with your partner or child, after regulating yourself, talk to them about the problem and be willing to hear how you have affected them. Relational conflict involves two people, and both individuals have the chance to learn something about themselves. Then teach your child to do the same. While it is never a child's responsibility to take on the emotions of another, they can learn once everyone is in a calm state how the other person experienced them.
- Model, teach, and practice listening.
Did you know that listening is a skill that is developed with practice? While many of us are capable of hearing from birth, listening is something we learn to do. The best way for your child to learn to be an effective listener is to model listening skills. What you model will become about 80% of what your children learn. As your child gets older, you can actively talk about and give feedback on each other's listening skills.
To be an effective listener, model creating a safe environment where all topics, no matter how difficult, are welcomed and greeted with empathy. Remove distractions such as phones, screens, or side conversations when listening to your child. If you cannot do so, let them know that what they have to say to you is important to you, and you will be available to listen right after you finish what you are doing. Maintain appropriate eye contact with your child and notice the nonverbal gestures. What do their nonverbals communicate? Listen to understand what your child is feeling and thinking. Then, unless your child asks for advice, don't offer it! Instead, ask appropriate questions when necessary.