Happiness, such a debatable subject!
I think it is only natural that parents want their children to be happy. I know I do.
As a psychologist I hear it a lot “I just want my child to be happy”. But what does this mean? What exactly is happiness and why do we go to any lengths to get it?
In my parent seminars we often discuss what we really want for our children and happiness is usually the first thing that is mentioned. So respectfully I ask parents to put happiness aside for a moment and think about what causes happiness, because happiness is an emotion. One emotion of many that we feel as human beings.
They then tell me what they want is for their child to be determined, compassionate, forgiving, motivated, independent, loving, generous, respectful, patient, self-directed, confident and the list goes on.
These are all wonderful strengths you hope to develop in your child. When we know ourselves and use our strengths, guess what? We become happier!
Evolution suggests that we are likely not wired to look for happiness as it doesn’t contribute to our survival. All our emotions are necessary for our survival which is why we have them.
If we make only one emotion our goal, the only outcome we will be satisfied with, then it is likely we are going to be highly disappointed with life most of the time because life is generally neutral.
So why is it that we place so much emphasis on keeping our children happy? Is it because we don’t want them to experience the range of emotions that is inevitable with the human condition?
Could it be that we want to protect them from ‘negative’ emotions because we ourselves don’t like those emotions or know how to handle them in ourselves or others?
Could it be that we think ‘negative’ emotions are bad to experience and having bad experiences needs to be avoided?
How do you cope with your own negative emotions?
Do you hide from them by yelling, withdrawing, being busy, drinking, binging on Netflix?
Remember as parents we model everything including emotional regulation.
Emotional Regulation comes with growth
Children don’t come equipped with the ability to regulate their emotions, this happens as the brain starts to wire the pre-frontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop.
Emotional regulation is the ability to feel an emotion, acknowledge it, and work productively with it so that it doesn’t rule our decision-making.
How do you help your child develop emotional regulation? Firstly, by noticing your own emotions.
Identify how you feel, name it (to yourself) and then work out what it actually means for you. What can you do that will be productive and reasonable?
Qualities of Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation doesn’t mean we don’t ever get what we want. We just need to work towards a more positive outcome drawing on our respect for ourselves and others, our compassion for ourselves and others and also our problem-solving skills, which may mean negotiating.
It could also mean letting something go, or as I like to refer to it as “pick your battles”.
Deciding if this is really worth it is part of emotional regulation. Keep things in perspective. What may seem important at this moment, may not be tomorrow, or in a week or in a month. If it isn’t then it may be worth letting go.
Learn to effectively self-soothe
Learn how to self-soothe effectively without stimulants or shutting down.
It may be that you take a walk or do something active to push all that emotion through your system.
You may find a relaxation technique that nourishes you like reading, listening to music, singing, meditation or being in the garden.
Find someone compassionate to talk to. Someone who isn’t going to try to solve things for you and who is also not going to necessarily agree with everything you say. A good ear is always someone who remains neutral and lets you work it through.
Journaling can also help, but remember, don’t keep a journal that just records what is wrong in life. Write it down and work through your thoughts and feelings, this often brings more perspective. Then let it go by throwing it away or cutting it up. You don’t need to hang on to it, the moment has passed, and you can move on.
Model how to name to tame emotions
Look after yourself, allow your emotions both positive and negative to be present, always being the master of your own domain. Don’t let emotions rule your behavior because at every moment you are modelling how to emotionally regulate to your child.
And for your children?
Help them sit in negative emotions like unhappiness, not avoid it with distractions like screens or food or toys. Help them sit in it but not drown in it.
Help them to talk things through and accept that there are times we don’t feel happy, we actually feel sad, lonely, angry, afraid, embarrassed and lots more.
Rather than trying to make them happy or keep them happy, let them feel their emotions and help them name them to tame them. Then they will start to know they can cope with life’s ups and downs and be happier as a result.
Remember: “happiness is an inside job” (William Arthur Ward)
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