Like any parent who wants the best for her children, Trish Bragg has done everything she can to make sure Isabel, Charlie, and Madeline are healthy, have plenty of stimulating activities to fill their day, and are loved unconditionally. Yet, like many, she struggles with parenting's million-dollar question: Are my kids happy? "Among all my friends, that's what we want to know," Bragg says.
What makes children happy may surprise you.
Child development experts who study the subject say that happiness isn't something you can give a child like a prettily wrapped present. In fact, says Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, over-indulged children — whether showered with toys or shielded from emotional discomfort — are more likely to grow into teenagers who are bored, cynical, and joyless. "The best predictors of happiness are internal, not external," says Hallowell, who stresses the importance of helping kids develop a set of inner tools they can rely on throughout life.
The good news is you don't have to be an expert in child psychology to impart the inner strength and wisdom it takes to cheerfully weather life's ups and downs. With patience and flexibility, any parent can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness.
Learn to read the signs
When your child was a baby and toddler, you probably had a good sense of whether he was happy or sad. His face lit up in a huge smile when you came home, and he sobbed endlessly when the dog shredded his beloved blankie.
Now that he's older, his emotions are more complex. But fortunately, his ability to control them is a lot stronger. Still, the outward signs of whether he's happy or unhappy are not hard to read. A happy child smiles, plays, shows curiosity, socializes with other children, and doesn't need constant stimulation.
Conversely, says Hallowell, the signs of an unhappy child are clear: The child "is withdrawn, quiet, not eating very much, doesn't spontaneously get involved with other children, doesn't play, doesn't ask questions, doesn't laugh and smile, and has very spare speech."
If you have a naturally shy or introverted child who doesn't laugh or interact a lot, that doesn't mean he's unhappy. Shyness is not the same as sadness, but you'll have to work harder to read his signs. Hallowell says to be aware of any major changes in his behavior — becoming more isolated or fearful — that might suggest he's having problems you should pay attention to.
Paul C. Holinger, professor of psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's
Most parents recognize that a fearful, easily upset child isn't a happy camper, but Holinger finds that many parents don't recognize that an angry child is usually expressing sadness. No matter the age, "anger is simply excessive distress," says Holinger. When your child hits his brother or yells "I hate you!" it means he's distressed beyond his ability to deal with it.
Your child probably has his own ways of showing you when he's going through a hard time. Some kids may withdraw, some may lash out, and still others may become clingy. As you get to know your own child's temperament, you'll become better at learning the signs that something's not right in his world. For more insights into your child's natural temperament, check out our article, "Are children born happy?"
Make room for fun
If your child took a minute to think about her happiest times, she would probably realize that what makes her happiest is you. And that's the first key to creating a happy child says Hallowell. "Connect with them, play with them," he advises. "If you're having fun with them, they're having fun. If you create what I call a 'connected childhood,' that is by far the best step to guarantee your child will be happy."
Play creates joy, but play is also how your child develops skills essential to future happiness. Unstructured play allows her to discover what she loves to do — build cities out of blocks, teach math to her stuffed animals — which can point her toward a career that will seem like a lifetime of play. Play doesn't mean after-school lessons, organized sports, and other structured, "enriching" activities. Play is when children invent, create, and daydream.
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Help them develop their talents
Hallowell's prescription for creating lifelong happiness includes a surprising twist: Happy people are often those who have mastered a skill. For example, when your child practices riding a bike, he learns from his mistakes, he learns persistence and discipline, and then he experiences the joy of succeeding due to his own efforts.
He also reaps the reward of gaining recognition from others for his accomplishment. Most important, he discovers he has some control over his life: If he tries to do something, he has the satisfaction of finding that, with persistence, he can eventually do it. Research shows that this feeling of control through mastery is an important factor in adult happiness. Finally, Hallowell warns that children, like adults, need to follow their own interests, or there'll be no joy in their successes.
Remember: Healthy bodies equal happy children
Lots of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are important to everyone's well-being, especially children's. For exercise, your child doesn't need to be on a soccer team: Just running around outside helps children with their moods. And pay attention to your child's need for structure: While some children are very easygoing, many children thrive and are happier with a set schedule that lets them know what's coming.
You might also want to pay attention to any connection between your child's mood and particular foods. Some parents find that while sugar can give their child an energy boost, it can also create mood swings or aggressive behavior. Food allergies and sensitivities may also play a role in your child's behavior and mood.
Let them struggle with problems
But, you say, I'm supposed to be creating a happy child! Shouldn't I swoop down and make everything better? In fact, Carrie Masia-Warner, a child psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-intentioned parents make.
"Parents try to make it better for their child all the time, to make them happy all the time. That's not realistic. Don't always jump in and try to fix it," advises Masia-Warner. "Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope."
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child's 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he'll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.
They learn that no matter what happens, they can find a solution. This doesn't mean children shouldn't ask for help if they need it, but your role is to help them find a solution, not provide it for them. Learning to deal with life's inevitable frustrations and setbacks is critical to your child's future happiness.
Check in with your child
The best advice on how to know if your child is happy is the simplest: Talk with him. Even more important, says Hallowell: Listen. "I ask my kids if they're happy so often they roll their eyes," he says. "It's a way of checking in, of letting them know that I care."
Masia-Warner agrees that open communication is essential in understanding your child's moods. "For instance, say to your child, 'You seem to be dragging lately, you seem sad. Is there something you want to tell me, something that's bothering you?' Then, let him talk."
If your child brushes you off, try again the next day. But
Allow them to be sad or mad
When your child pouts in a corner during a birthday party, your natural reaction may be to say, "You should be having fun like everyone else!" But it's important to allow her to be unhappy. Hallowell is concerned that "some parents worry any time their children suffer a little rejection, they don't get invited to the birthday party, or they cry because they didn't get what they wanted."
Children need to know that it's okay to be unhappy sometimes — it's part of life. And if we try to squelch any unhappiness, we may be sending the message that it's wrong to feel sad. We need to let them experience their feelings, including sadness.
You can encourage your child to label her feelings and express them verbally, which then helps her to regulate them. Don't try to solve her problems for her. Instead, just listen and help her talk through her feelings.
Sharon Cohn of
However, Masia-Warner warns, you shouldn't overreact to your child's negative feelings. "It's normal for kids to become oversensitive or clingy or nervous at times because of something in their environment, but it's not an unhappiness."
Be a role model
According to Dora Wang, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and mother of 3-year-old Zoe, research shows that you can pass on your temperament to your children — not necessarily through your genes, but through your own behavior and childrearing style. For better or worse, children pick up on their parents' moods. Even young babies imitate their parents' emotional style, which actually activates specific neural pathways.
In other words, when you smile, your child smiles and his brain becomes "wired" for smiling. But be genuine — your child will sense if you're acting. If you make a point of enjoying small things and saying what you're grateful for, you'll be a positive role model for your child.
You can help your child see his glass as half full rather than half empty. For example, if the baseball game gets rained out, point out what a great chance it is to go see a matinee. Cohn tells her kids, "Be happy about what you have instead of being sad about what you don't have." A wonderful dinnertime ritual might be for each family member to say what the best part of the day was.
Peggy O'Leary of
But you don't have to hide your negative emotions, either. You can show your child that you're upset about your best friend moving away, and if you follow up by talking about how you will keep in touch and how much fun it will be to visit her, you'll be teaching your child that sadness is a part of life as well as showing him how to find the silver linings.
However, if you find yourself constantly stressed out or depressed, it's important to seek help. "Parents who tend to be depressed are often not good at being consistent with their discipline and providing structure, or at providing consistent praise and having fun with their children. All of this can contribute to emotional problems," says Masia-Warner.
Teach them to do meaningful things
Research shows that people who have meaning in their lives feel less depressed.
Cohn says that after her daughter Rebecca learned about Hurricane Katrina, she and her classmates collected school supplies and backpacks to donate to the kids who lost their belongings. Even helping out with the household chores, such as setting and clearing the table, can help your child feel that she's making a contribution.
If you're concerned your child is going through a difficult period, try talking with her teacher and the parents of her friends to see what they're observing. O'Leary says that her daughter Jean's kindergarten year was very stressful for her. "I knew instantly from the look in Jean's eye, and later from her tears, that she was overwhelmed," says O'Leary. She talked to Jean's teacher to find out what was happening in the classroom and to see how they could ease the transition for her.
Most of the time, kids are unhappy or upset due to something stressful in their environment: a fight with a friend, pressures at school, or tension at home. But sometimes the source of their discontentment is more serious.
If you see persistent signs of unhappiness — anger, crying, aggression, constant complaining, frustration that's easily provoked, frequent headaches or stomachaches, difficulty sleeping or eating — don't hesitate to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. Whether you go the route of a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, make sure you choose someone who specializes in children. Take heart though: Masia-Warner says that depression in children is rare.