Body Language Cues from the Terrible Twos
Adelaide Manley

Dr. Karen Caplovitz Barrett at Colorado State University was interested in knowing if 17-month-old children were capable of displaying common social emotion behaviours. This includes guilt, shame, embarrassment, and self-regulation as well as whether or not parental socialization could predict these behaviours.

First of all, what does guilt, shame and embarrassment look like in toddlers and are they any different from how you and I display these behaviours?
The simple answer is no. Empirical studies verify that both children and adults experience guilt and shame and/or embarrassment similarly.

Shame is a feeling that your whole self is immoral and others are perceiving you this way. Conversely, guilt entails concentrating on your own responsibility for any wrongdoing. Thus, when someone feels shameful and/or embarrassed, they try to avoid those who may negatively judge them in various ways, such as hiding the face, gaze aversion and distancing. Conversely, when someone feels guilty they typically fess up and try to compensate for their wrongdoing.

For young children specifically, feelings of shame and/or embarrassment result when they fail at a mastery task. Older children typically only feel guilty.

The smile of embarrassment also warrants attention. Although shame and embarrassment seem similar, the smile is what behaviourally separates embarrassment from shame.

Self-regulation refers to an individual’s ability to monitor their behaviour to conform to society’s expectations or demands. By the time children reach toddlerhood, they can typically understand when they have violated social standards.

In Barrett’s study, she evaluated toddlers’ behaviours in different setting, including naturally occurring standard violations, a semi-naturalistic, imposed standard violation, and a resistance to temptation situation. Parents’ behaviours were also observed.

The results indicate 17-month-old toddlers display guilt, embarrassments, and anxiety-inhibition behaviours in the different contexts.

During the self-regulation task, toddlers were supposed to refrain from touching a toy robot. Most children could, waiting just under 1.5 min when instructed to not play with the toy; toddlers also did not instantly play with the toy when they were unsupervised.

In another context, a leg fell off the clown doll and children’s reactions were measured. The majority of children responded as expected by telling their mother or the experimenter. Nearly half of the children tried to fix the doll themselves. Interestingly, 66% of the toddlers in the study avoided eye contact and/or physical movements after the leg fell off.

They also tended to smile more after this mishap than before, suggesting these were embarrassed smiles. Other embarrassed behaviours involved lip press, lip bite, and/or body touching/self-adaptors. Overall behaviours during this portion of the study were quite typical and are related to guilt and shame.

During the follow-up analyses, Barrett found that boys’ smiles tended to be more embarrassed after the mishap compared to girls’. Boys also avoided the experimenter more often as well.
Free play situations were also included in the study. Children smiled more often when they mastered the given tasks compared to when they were unsuccessful. They also reacted negatively to rule violations compared to when they adhered to one.

Furthermore, parental behaviours played a significant role. When parents reacted positively to their child’s mastery at a task, their child’s reaction was correspondingly positive. When parents displayed mixed reactions to their child’s misbehaviour, their child also displayed mixed reactions. In both instances, children looked at their caregiver’s for feedback.
Contrary to what you may expect, young children are capable of displaying social emotions and self-regulation. Perhaps the main difference is they are still learning how to appropriately respond and rely on their caregivers to understand the consequences, whether positive or negative, of their behaviours.

About the Author: Adelaide Manley is an undergraduate student studying psychology and family & child studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation, she is hoping to pursue a Master of Social Work.


Barrett, K. C. (2005). The origins of social emotions and self-regulation in toddlerhood: New evidence. Cognition and Emotion, 19(7), 953-979.