04/01/2017 12:36 GMT | Updated 05/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Space For The Self-Conscious Child


We all have moments that we wish to forget in later life. The embarrassing ones, the ones that make us cringe. They are a necessary part of life but knowing this doesn't make those moments any easier to deal with or make us any less likely to feel our cheeks burning when we recall them. In my 36 years so far I've had a fair few and most of these fell into the embarrassing/mortifying category which then blended into the 'stories we can laugh at later' category. But the odd couple fell into their own category of embarrassment due to feeling suddenly and hugely exposed and self-conscious. The one I recall most vividly is of a time I was in my student bedroom in my second year at university. I was alone (or so I thought), and I was listening to Coldplay's Trouble on my CD player. Probably a little drunk, I was feeling all melancholy and wistful and singing along to myself. There may have been some drunken tears, my memory is foggy now. But what I do remember is that when I thought I was singing really quite beautifully, a chuckle coming from my door stopped me very quickly. One of my best friends had come over to see me and had stood for some time in my doorway, watching me in my own world, laughing to himself, and ultimately laughing at me. Lots of feelings came over me all at once but mostly deep embarrassment and self-consciousness that he had witnessed me in a moment when I thought I was completely alone.

As I describe that, it sounds like such a little thing, such a tiny moment, but it is something I recall even now with slightly burning cheeks. I have thought about this recently, and other similar moments, as I watch my daughter, who is 4, become much more self-aware and within that, self-conscious. I don't recall feeling self-conscious at such a young age but I imagine there is that moment for all of us when we become self-aware and start to see how we fit into the world around us, and in turn recognise that this will mean the world around us can form its views about us.

I have two children. My son is the youngest at 3 and he is self-aware in the way a toddler typically is - he is the centre of his own world, he sees little outside of it - but he is not self-conscious. My daughter, on the other hand, is very gently starting to experience periods of self-awareness that take her outside of her comfort zone. I see it in extremes. Sometimes she will play very exaggerated games, role play, loud play, which focus on different aspects of her anatomy and result in funny songs and rhymes with little worry for how others see her. At other times, she will become so engrossed in her quieter role play but very aware we are around her, and she will tell us not to watch or listen to her. It is as if she is starting already to feel the embarrassment and the anxiety that people may laugh at her.

As a brand new parent when my daughter was a baby, I absorbed the parenting books and read about the research into baby and toddler development. I understood about the journey into self-awareness during those key stages, but I never fully appreciated the next steps into becoming the self-conscious child. Indeed, self-awareness is an important skill for children to develop, but it should be developed in a safe space where children are able to experience self-conscious feelings around sensitive adults who allow them to explore those feelings without feeling embarrassed. When our daughter gives her instruction not to watch her or listen to her, my husband and I simply say "Ok" and go about our business. We don't draw attention to her, nor do we make her feel silly or question her. I'm not sure whether that is the right way to approach it or not, but for now it seems to give her the space to act out her role play and stories without feeling that embarrassment. And whilst I realise we can never fully shield her from feeling embarrassed, and nor should we, we can at least provide that comfortable space for her as she grows into those new feelings and learns how to deal with them.