Wholeness rather than happiness
We all want our kids to be happy and healthy, of course we do. But how many of us really think about what ‘being happy’ means and the strange paradox that focusing on this might be doing children more harm than good.
There are two kinds of happiness. The first is having a great time in the here and now. It is about experiencing pleasure and just feeling good about life. This includes having fun with friends, getting something new, achieving high marks in an exam or winning a match. Don’t knock it, we all need to feel like this from time to time! But this kind of happiness, although great in the moment, doesn’t last.
The other kind of happiness is found in positive connections with others, being able to cope well with challenges and having a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. This leads to wholeness and a sustainable, deep-seated wellbeing.
So, what does this mean for how we raise our children?
Dealing with difficult feelings: Many parents and carers understandably can't bear to see their children upset, and quickly give them whatever will cheer them up. Eventually young people begin to expect that the more they yell, the more likely it is that someone will sort it for them. This can lead to dependency, a sense of entitlement and an inability to problem-solve for themselves. Children also learn that difficult feelings are to be got rid of as soon as possible rather than worked through. What is buried can re-surface later and cause havoc – you only have to read what happened to Prince Harry. Children need a language for feelings so they can express these in words rather than fists and tantrums.
Sometimes the role of parents and carers is to simply acknowledge emotions and give children permission to feel frustrated, angry, or sad. Then discuss with them what might help. A conversation might go like this: I see you are really upset, that’s OK. You can cry / scream if you like but you can’t hurt other people. Now what might help? Give the child a minute or two to think. If they don’t have ideas, you might offer some. This of course will depend on their age. Punching a cushion, writing down what you feel, putting on some music, just telling me? This approach isn’t easy at first but has great benefits as the child grows. Over time they will gradually develop strategies for resilience, which is empowering. It also helps if adults around the child talk through how they deal with challenges themselves. Children see, children hear, children do. Emotions are contagious so it is natural to feel anger or anxiety when your child does. Parents and carers need to stay calm, perhaps breathing through strong feelings- maybe counting each one. This helps you and also demonstrates another strategy for your child’s resilience toolbox.
Connecting with others: Relationships are the crux of both our happiness and our misery. Helping children learn how to establish and maintain healthy relationships will make more difference to their wellbeing in life than almost anything else. Young children begin social interactions early in life. When adults regularly respond to infants by smiling, talking and singing with them, children grow up secure in their attachments. When they begin to play with others, encourage them to share and be kind. Continual high expectations about how children treat others is never wasted, even if they take time to learn. As they grow, children need opportunities to interact with children from diverse backgrounds so that they do not stereotype others but get to know them properly. They will not like everyone, but this needs to be based on personality, not race or ability. Many books have helpful messages about both friendship and feelings and can be useful for discussion.
Good communication is the bedrock of healthy relationships, so the sooner children learn this the better. For younger children, just playing together and sharing likes and dislikes is a good start. Show older children how to be interested in other people. Sentences that begin ‘I wonder …” or “I noticed …” stimulate good conversations. Active listening is a skill that few people seem to have these days. This involves paying attention, not being distracted or interrupting, and asking follow-up questions. Doing this with your own children shows them how.
An attitude of gratitude: Some children develop a negative take on life which can undermine their wellbeing. Thankfulness is now acknowledged as an important buffer against depression. Just telling kids to be grateful, however, is likely to back-fire. Instead, spend a few minutes at bedtime asking them to tell you the best thing that happened that day or what they enjoyed the most. They then fall asleep with positive thoughts rather than anxious ones. When children are older you might encourage a ‘gratitude diary’ where they write down three ‘blessings’ a day.
Acceptance. You are not your exam result: Children are faced with so much competition these days, many have high levels of anxiety about not being good enough. They need to be loved for who they are, not in comparison to others. Part of this is strengths identification. Let your children know they are becoming … thoughtful, determined, generous, caring, helpful. Even the student with the highest marks will not have sustainable wellbeing without healthy relationships and resilience.
The bigger picture: Your children will feel much better about themselves, other people and the world they are in, when they actively contribute. This gives them not only meaning and purpose but a positive self-concept, being proud of who they are. So, encourage them to do charity runs, practice random acts of kindness and volunteer to help others. Talk about how this makes them feel. So long as children feel these activities are their choice, this will invariably make them feel good and it will also help them connect positively with others.
This is the happiness that matters most.
Sue Roffey is a psychologist and academic specialising in whole child, whole school wellbeing and co-author of Creating the World We Want to Live In (Routledge) available now £19.99.
The views and information in this article are provided by Dr Sue Roffey and these views do not represent Morton Michel.