From Doctors World

Self-awareness and empathy

Perhaps the most important aspect of children's emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness.

Two-year-old children begin to describe their own actions as they are performing them, can recognize a reflection of themselves in the mirror, and may become possessive with their toys for the first time. This growing awareness of and ability to recall one's own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children's dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others.

This change is often accompanied by the urge to test the standards of behaviour held by parents, and, as a result, children's second and third years are often called the "terrible twos."With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others' emotions.

Even six-year-olds are aware that other people have different perspectives, thoughts, and feelings from their own, and they are able to empathize with the characteristics they observe in others. By eight to nine years of age a child recognizes that people can become aware of others' point of view, and he likewise knows that others can become aware of his own perspective.

By 10 years of age the child can consider a social interaction simultaneously from his own point of view and from that of another person. Owing to this increased awareness, children from age seven on are more conscious of what others think of them and show more concern over others' opinion of their behaviour.

Finally, older children understand that a person's genuine emotions can be stronger or different from those he actually reveals, and they thus appreciate that a person can disguise his emotions.One major factor underlying these changes is the child's increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one's own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained.

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