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At what age can a child feel ashamed?

Shame is a complex emotion that involves an awareness of social standards and a feeling that one has failed to meet those standards. The capacity for shame emerges in toddlerhood and develops rapidly between ages 3-7. However, there is debate among researchers about the exact age when children first experience shame. Some key factors that influence shame development include self-awareness, empathy, social understanding, and the maturation of brain regions involved in processing social emotions.

When Does Self-Awareness Emerge?

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for shame, as one must have a concept of the self in order to make negative self-evaluations against social standards. Research suggests that basic self-awareness first emerges around 18 months. At this age, children can recognize themselves in a mirror or photograph. However, this early self-recognition simply reflects an awareness that “this body is me.” It does not involve an evaluation of the self.

More complex forms of self-awareness begin developing around age 2. At this point, children display embarrassment in response to mishaps like spilling a drink or losing their pants, suggesting they are aware that others may negatively judge them. While early shame reactions are present by age 2, children likely have limited insight into their emotions.

The Development of Empathy in Childhood

In addition to self-awareness, the capacity for empathy is necessary to feel ashamed. Children must be able to put themselves in others’ shoes in order to understand how their actions impact others and how others may negatively evaluate them.

Research shows that basic empathy emerges by 12-18 months, as toddlers start displaying concerned reactions to the distress of others. However, complex empathy skills undergo significant maturation between ages 3-7. During this time, children become better able to recognize diverse emotional expressions, understand different viewpoints, and regulate their impulses for the benefit of others.

The relationship between empathy and shame likely goes both ways. As empathy improves, so does the capacity for shame and guilt. And the experience of shame can promote greater empathy by giving children insight into how their actions impact others.

The Development of Social Understanding

To feel shame, children must have an understanding of social expectations, standards, and norms. Before age 3, toddlers have limited insight into social rules. Their behavior is focused on basic desires and needs. Starting around 3 years, children begin to display an awareness of social norms like taking turns, sharing with others, having good manners, and controlling inappropriate behavior. Between ages 3-7, this social understanding expands greatly as children observe others closely and absorb the “hidden rules” that govern social interactions. With a strong awareness of social standards in place, children become very sensitive to judgment, criticism, and the experience of shame.

Maturation of Brain Regions for Social-Emotional Processing

Various regions in the brain’s temporal and prefrontal cortex are involved in processing social-emotional information and generating feelings of shame. Studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show structural changes in these brain areas that support social cognition between ages 5-10. Myelination also increases during childhood, allowing for faster transmission of signals across neural networks involved in emotion. In addition to structural maturation, functional changes occur as children gain experience understanding social norms and responding to shame cues from caregivers. Overall, brain development during ages 3-7 appears to lay the neurological foundation for experiencing complex self-conscious emotions.

A Summary of Factors Influencing Shame Development

Age Range Developmental Milestones
0-2 years Basic self-awareness emerges, seen in mirror self-recognition and embarrassment
1-3 years Beginning of empathy seen in concerned responses to others’ distress
2-3 years Social referencing behavior emerges, relying on others’ emotional cues
3-4 years Growing understanding of social rules and standards
3-7 years Rapid maturation of empathy, social cognition, and emotion regulation skills
5-10 years Structural changes occur in brain regions linked to social-emotional processing

Research Findings on the Emergence of Shame

Given the complex cognitive and emotional prerequisites described above, what does research actually reveal about when children start exhibiting shame? While there is no consensus, some key findings include:

Shame Reactions May Emerge by Age 2-3

– A 2022 study found that children as young as 26-41 months old displayed nonverbal shame cues like gaze aversion, slumped posture, and eye covering when praised for an accidental “naughty” act. This suggests a basic capacity for shame is present by ages 2-3.

– In a classic study by Lewis et al (1989), most 2-year-olds reacted to an imaginary mishap (ripping a book) by avoiding the researcher’s gaze, while 3-year-olds also showed facial signs of embarrassment like smiling sheepishly or blushing.

Clear Shame Responses Observed by Ages 3-4

– Fergusons & Stegge (1995) found that 3-4 year olds showed more shame behaviors following a simulated shame experience compared to a control situation. Reactions included decreased smiling, slumped posture, gaze down, and concerned facial expressions.

– Kochanska et al (2002) studied children ages 3-5 and observed displays of shame like hiding the face in hands, slumping, and shifting eye gaze in response to stories depicting transgressions, especially among girls and children with highly responsive mothers.

Shame Becomes More Complex Between Ages 4-7

– By age 4-5, children can verbally articulate feelings of shame, show understanding that it stems from negative evaluation from others, and make attributions to internal factors like lack of ability (Ferguson & Stegge, 1998).

– Between 4-7 years, research documents an increase in complex shame behaviors like verbal apologies, reparative actions to “fix” mistakes, and empathy toward victims following transgressions (Barrett et al, 1993).

– Olthof et al (2000) found shame displays increased substantially between ages 5-7 in response to hypothetical stories about failing a test and being publically ridiculed.

Shame Is Fully Present By Middle Childhood

– By ages 7-10, children display adult-like shame responses across multiple contexts, show deeper understanding of the self-related causes of shame, and can reflect on past experiences of shame (Berti et al, 2000).

– Survey research indicates 7-10 year olds experience frequent shame and guilt emotions in their daily lives, especially related to academic failure, rule-breaking, and social rejection (Ferguson et al, 2000).


Shame is a complex self-conscious emotion that relies on a child’s developing self-awareness, empathy, social cognition, and neurological maturation. Research suggests basic feelings of shame and embarrassment may emerge in toddlerhood around ages 2-3, but that richer expressions of shame arise by ages 3-4 as children gain social understanding. Between ages 4-7, shame responses become more nuanced and complex. By middle childhood, around ages 7-10, children likely experience shame in ways similar to adults, reflecting a mature capacity for negative self-evaluation in response to perceived social failure. However, individual differences in social-emotional development mean some children may experience shame earlier or later than these average ranges. More research is still needed to pinpoint the precise developmental timeline of shame in childhood.