Have you heard yourself or someone else say they "just" want their child to be happy?
This is often something parents of children tell me in the therapy clinic when they are worried their child ISN'T happy.
A nine year old once drew a picture for me and wrote on it "I'm happy someone loves me and is not mean." And yet puppies and babies come into the world happy.
Henry Emmons, a psychiatrist from Minnesota wrote a book called "The Chemistry of Joy". In the book he talks about how humans are wired for joy. Alan Sroufe, a retired researcher from the University of Minnesota wrote a book called Emotional Development where he talks about the baby's smile, when baby begins to know the parent's voice, smell, sound and the smile changes to a recognition smile bursting with joy. And yet we see many children who have lost their smile, and grownups who struggle with anxiety and depression.
When that bursting joyful smile doesn't happen at six or seven months, it's a sign of something going awry.* And there are later signs too. A child who isn't talking when others his or age are talking, a child who bites and kicks (more than usual) or doesn't want to play with other children when they are a little older, are showing signs of unhappiness. Children become happy over time, and we can protect their happiness -- or help them repair it--by seeing beyond the behavior and helping them express their emotions.
Naming the unhappiness helps a child make room for the happy. If you have a child of any age who seems to 'show' you through lack of smiling, behavior, tantrums, kicking, lack of play that they are unhappy you CAN help. Help that child by labeling the emotion for them or with them. Parents often do this with a baby when baby cries, and they know what the cry means "Oh you're so hungry" they say, "it's coming" or "oh you're so tired" or "that was scary" or "you just need mom right now". Remember my blog about the five basic feelings? Keep those five in mind and try them out.
"You seem worried" at ten, "I can see you're angry" at five, and "maybe you're sad about that" at four are incredibly helpful statements to a child demonstrating behavior that shows they are definitely unhappy. That doesn't mean parents need to stop setting limits. A child still needs to go to bed, eat vegetables, and learn to manage emotions. Labeling the emotions helps a child know you care about them when you're setting those limits. Remembering to do this helps us as adults be kinder and gentler in our approach, too. If you ask yourself "how do I set a limit AND protect my child's overall happiness" you'll find more balance in your approach. "I love you AND you still need to go to bed," "I'm frustrated with you AND I love you" "I can see you're sad and I didn't mean to hurt your feelings but I still mean no" are happiness protectors.
Come up with your own statements of "I can see how you feel AND the limit still stand" and send them to me via email, I'd love to hear what you tried and how it turned out for you and your child. Until next time,
* Be sure to seek out a professional evaluation for a child who isn't meeting typical milestones, there is a combination of experience, neurological or other factors that can be considered so that a child has the best chance possible to get back on track.