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Children develop identity of self.

Self-concept involves children’s thoughts and feelings about themselves. Children are not born with the ability to recognize their own feelings and thoughts, and depend on their early relationships and experiences with caregivers to shape and influence the development of their self-concept. Children’s emerging awareness of themselves as separate people with thoughts and feelings is crucial in forming positive relationships with others while helping build self-confidence in their own abilities.

Self-concept is first marked by a physical realization that children are separate from their primary caregivers.1 In the first few months of life, children see themselves as part of their primary caregiver, usually their mother. Around five months of age, children realize they may be separate individuals and spend the next few months developing a sense of self-awareness.2 Older infants can respond to their names, and around 18 months of age, children demonstrate self-recognition as they are able to identify themselves in mirrors and photographs.

The social development of children in these years also supports the idea that children are building their mental self-concept. This is first seen in children’s ability to identify their body parts when asked, and to refer to themselves in the first person. Around the same time children demonstrate self-recognition, they begin to use words such as “I” and “mine.”3 Children continue to develop self-concept as they demonstrate an awareness of their own characteristics and begin to identify their own feelings and preferences in everyday interactions.

Why the Terrible Twos Aren’t So Terrible

Children begin to visibly exert their independence during the toddler years. Often, this struggle between the desires of children and the desires of their caregivers leads to screams, tears, and frustration. This age period is commonly described as the “terrible twos.” In understanding how children develop, we know that expectations of behavior are determined by societal and cultural contexts. The “terrible twos” are not terrible in every society, as the expectations adults have for young children differ.4 In the Western culture, we encourage independence and expect very young children to control behavior and emotions that they cannot manage at their age. Realistic expectations, patience, and sensitive guidance on the part of caregivers are important for young children and can help make the “terrible twos” pretty terrific!

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to recognize themselves as individuals, separate from others. At first, young infants are not aware that they are separate beings. However, between six and nine months of age, the realization that they are separate people emerges.

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates interest in faces and voices of others
  • Explores his or her own hands and feet
  • Recognizes own name, e.g., looks up, or turns head toward a person who is saying his/her name
  • Recognizes and prefers familiar adults and siblings, e.g., leans toward caregiver when being held by someone else
  • Initiates interactions with others, e.g., imitates actions, plays peek-a-boo
  • Begins to display the beginning of joint attention, e.g., points to objects and people
  • Demonstrates separation anxiety, e.g., cries when caregiver leaves the room

Strategies for interaction

  • Cuddle, nurture, and respond thoughtfully to the child’s signals
  • Use the child’s name during interactions
  • Provide mirrors for the child to look at self
  • Read books together that reflect the child’s culture
  • Acknowledge the child’s efforts to initiate and engage, e.g., look toward where the child is pointing and name what he or she is pointing at

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to have a greater awareness of their own characteristics and begin to express themselves with their own thoughts and feelings.

Indicators for children include:

  • Shows awareness of significant people by calling them by name, e.g., “papa”
  • Engages in joint attention with familiar others, e.g., shares in looking and engaging with objects and people
  • Responds with vocalizations or gestures when hears name
  • Demonstrates interest in looking in mirror
  • Uses gestures and some words to express feelings, e.g., “no”
  • Uses social referencing to guide actions and begins to test limits
  • Points to and identifies body parts on him or herself, e.g., points to eyes when asked, “Where are your eyes?”

Strategies for interaction

  • Use names when referring to significant people in the child’s life
  • Use affective attunement to match the feelings of the child, e.g., use facial expressions and body language to express the same emotions the child is vocalizing
  • Allow child to express wants and desires; provide choices in order to allow him or her some control
  • Provide limits and boundaries for the child
  • Use songs and finger plays that help the child identify the names of different body parts

16 months to 24 months

Children become aware of themselves as distinct from others both physically and emotionally. During this period, children often struggle with the balance of being independent and needing nurturing from their caregiver(s).

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates awareness of self, e.g., touches own nose in the mirror
  • Able to express his or her name
  • Refers to self with gestures and language
  • Demonstrates understanding and use of concepts through words such as “mine,” “me,” and “you”
  • Points to self in images and other types of media
  • Frequently tests limits
  • Asks for help from familiar adults but may begin to attempt to complete tasks autonomously

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide words to the emotion the child is expressing; validate his or her feelings
  • Provide nurturing care, especially when the child is seeking comfort
  • Engage in conversations with the child often; provide opportunities for child to talk about him- or herself in a meaningful context
  • Set boundaries with the child and provide the child with choices throughout the day.
  • Use redirection, e.g., hand an object to a child who is about to start crying because another child has an object he or she wants

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to identify and discuss their connections to other people and things. Children can also identify their feelings and interests and communicate them to others.

Indicators for children include:

  • Names people in his/her family and shares stories about them
  • Asks for help from familiar adults but pushes away and refuses help
  • Incorporates roles of family members in play
  • Begins to show an interest in describing physical characteristics, e.g., “I have blue eyes”
  • Demonstrates preferences, e.g., “I want the green cup”
  • Communicates feelings, e.g., may say “I’m sad,” or stomps feet when mad
  • Begins to understand concept of possession, e.g., “yours,” “hers,” “his”

Strategies for interaction

  • Listen and respond with interest as the child shares meaningful information about his/her life
  • Ask the child about his/her day, friends, and favorite things
  • Acknowledge the child’s efforts in sharing stories, thoughts, and questions, e.g., comment and answer promptly and genuinely
  • Be aware and respectful of cultural differences in regard to independence
  • Encourage the child to bring in a picture of his or her family; keep it in a place where the child can access it


  1. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.

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About this resource

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2012