© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan
Hanson, L.Ac., 2005
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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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.
(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist,
Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a
daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they
are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in
Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You
can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with
questions or comments at email@example.com; unfortunately, a
personal reply may not always be possible.)