During their first year of life, infants begin to express a range of emotions—happiness, fear, anger, even jealousy. But embarrassment, that comes later and in two stages.
"Exposure embarrassment" shows up between 15 and 24 months, says Michael Lewis, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. Toddlers feel the burn of the spotlight as they gain self-awareness. In a study on emotional development, Lewis and colleagues found that once toddlers could recognize themselves in a mirror, they were more likely to be embarrassed when lavish praise was heaped on them. "But it turns out you can produce this kind of embarrassment simply by pointing at a 15-month-old. Just making them the object of our attention produces embarrassment," says Lewis.
By 3, a child begins to experience "evaluative embarrassment." More than just realizing that all eyes are on her, she'll size herself up based on social rules or standards and other's scrutiny. If a child is struggling to complete a new puzzle, she might feel she's not doing it quickly enough. "This kind of embarrassment is related to shame and failing at something," says Lewis. The child can now judge her own success, which might explain the abandoned puzzle pieces strewn across the floor in a sudden fit of self-consciousness.