When parents are asked, “What do you want most for your children?” The near-universal response is: “I just want my kids to be happy.” It is no bad thing to want our children to be happy - but happiness, like all feelings, comes and goes.
For a child to be happy, it’s necessary for us, as parents, to accept all their emotions – including the ones we find less pleasant. When we try to block out a negative feeling, we limit our ability to experience positive feelings too. Emotions don’t have a ‘mixing board’, they just have a ‘master volume’. We can’t fade out sadness and pain and fade up happiness and joy. If we turn one down, they all go down.
The secret to having happy kids is to teach them to tolerate being unhappy. As parents, our efforts are better served in teaching our children to work through their big emotions — feelings like anger, frustration, and, yes, disappointment — rather than trying to protect them from them.
It’s never too early to show a child how to handle their feelings. When parents manage their feelings well in front their children, even with their infants, they are helping model positive emotional management. Over time, copy our behavior, essentially borrowing and implementing the tools we’ve shown them to manage their own emotions.
When we focus too much on an unattainable need to be happy, we undermines our lives. Every life involves pain and pleasure. If we try to banish pain, numb it or distract ourselves from feeling it fully then we don’t learn the skills we need to deal with it.
If we can switch from “I just want them to be happy” to “I want them to be able to manage their emotions in healthy ways” we are one giant step in the right direction. Imagine if we were all able to better manage our emotions.
We’d have a society where violence would be diminished and relationships less fraught. We’d still have our disappointments and our frustrations, but we’d have an emotional tool box to handle the challenges. That’s a world I want my child to grow up in.
References: Berman, 2020; Siegal 2011