Self-Awareness for Kids and Grownups

Self-Awareness for Kids and Grownups

“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.

For Grownups

The inner world has its own reality, and you can become a very skillful observer of it as well:

  • Take a minute or two at least once a day to check in with yourself and assess the full spectrum of your experience, including your body sensations, emotions, thought, desires, and images.
  • Whenever you feel at all upset, do a quick check through the full spectrum of experience described just above.
  • Do an honest self-assessment about the aspects of your inner world that you tend to ignore, suppress, deny, disown, or push to the sidelines. People who know you well can help with this. Remember that resisting your experience just makes it persist. The fastest way to help it move on is to open the door wide to it; otherwise, it keeps on knocking!
  • Cultivate a daily practice in SOMETHING that centers you in an inner sanctuary of peaceful, interested, kind awareness. Meditation, yoga, or prayer are the preeminent methods for this, but you could also get a lot out of very consciously cooking, gardening, walking, playing music, or making art or crafts. Then, from time to time during the day, take a moment to re-center yourself in this inner sanctuary of simply being.
  • Imagine that your experience is a kind of layered parfait, with adult levels on top and younger parts underneath, reaching all the way back to earliest childhood.

Notice your attitudes toward your younger parts; these are often an internalization of your parents’ messages. Do you accept those younger parts or push them away? Do you bring kindness to them or meanness? Experiment with being especially kind to them, and see what that’s like.

Whenever you’re upset, try to sense into the younger layers beneath the surface of frustration, loss, or anger. Your awareness of them will help them flow . . . and move on.

* * *
Like any other skill, you get better at the inner ones with practice. Each day has many opportunities to help yourself or your child develop greater self-awareness. Enjoy!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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