Most parents, no matter what parenting style they ascribe to, wish for their children “to be healthy and happy.” While different opinions exist on what constitutes best practice for children’s physical health, most parents would agree on the basics of nutritious food, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep.
The “happy” wish is a bit more complicated. What makes children truly happy? Not the fleeting happiness of getting a new toy or a sweet treat, but the peaceful satisfying contentment that comes from deep within. Is it even possible for a parent to have an impact on a child’s happiness?
One thing is for sure, it is not possible for anyone to be “happy all the time.” To be human is to experience all the basic emotions of happy, sad, mad, and scared, at different times, in varying degrees and combinations. The natural experience of emotion is like that of a wave, it comes and it goes. The brain is designed with a stress response system that mirrors this experience, turning on when necessary and turning off when the event is over. We face the challenge of feeling the uncomfortable feelings without suppressing them, trying to escape from them, or expressing them in ways that cause harm to ourselves or others.
Perhaps, then, our collective wish for our children is not for “happily ever after” but “emotionally healthy and resilient.” We hope that they can weather life’s storms and rise to the challenge. After the storm has passed, they can still feel good about who they are, still have a sense of purpose and hope for the future, and they can take responsibility for making amends when necessary.
How do we foster resilience and emotional wellness in our children? There are numerous “experts” out there who are offering a variety of “solutions.” Who can be trusted with your child’s well-being? The answers to these questions are not “out there” but found very close to home. Investing some quiet time in self-reflection of your family is important because children feel what their parents feel, and learn from what they observe at home. Here are a few points to consider as food for thought:
- LISTENING: Feeling heard and understood is a huge stress-reliever for children. How skilled are you at listening? Do you feel impatient or interrupt when others are speaking? How do you show that you care and are really listening? What is your child really trying to tell you? For example, let’s say your child is giving you resistance at bedtime. A little cuddle time might be what is needed for a child who is missing some special time with you. Providing limited choices and reinforcing routines might be what is needed for a child who wants to keep playing. A nightlight or the hall light kept on might be what is needed for a child who is fearful of the dark. Your responses change based on what you understand is the issue.
- TRUSTING AND RESPECTFUL RELATIONSHIPS: How would you describe the relationships in your family? Are all members treated with trust and respect, the same consideration you would give to a good friend? How do you encourage and support your child? How do you handle mistakes? What happens after a rupture in the relationship? Does your child trust you with their inner world (feelings, thoughts, worries, hopes, fears, etc.) and feel safe enough to share it with you?
- GIVING PERMISSION: Many people are uncomfortable with the so-called “negative emotions” in themselves and in others. They diminish or try to escape from these feelings, disrupting the natural flow and passage of their feelings. Telling a crying baby “You’re okay,” or telling a child “You don’t need to cry” are examples of this. The reality is, the baby is NOT okay and the child NEEDS to cry! Children naturally will move through feelings if we support the natural process of emotion and do not interfere by rushing them through or shutting them down. This can be very challenging at times, because we have “mirror neurons” in our brains that function to imitate what we see and feel in front of us. Staying calm while witnessing a tantrum is really hard, but not impossible, with mindful practice.
- THE IMPORTANCE OF DOWN-TIME: We live in a fast-paced and busy world that is taxing to the nervous system. Making time for down-time teaches children that emotional and mental health is valuable. Down-time gives your nervous system the break it needs in order to work well. How balanced is your family schedule? Is there down-time scheduled on a regular basis? Down-time activities for adults are those that you enjoy, find relaxing, and feel renewed after completing. For children, down-time is unstructured playtime to explore, move, wonder, create, dream and have fun.
As a parent, you can best support emotional wellness in your child if you take care of your own emotional and mental health. It is also helpful to be informed of the particular needs of children at different ages and stages of emotional development. You can then provide age-appropriate opportunities for your child to develop emotional strength and resilience. The pathway to whole wellness is a worthwhile journey for both children and parents.