When asked what they want most for their children, parents often respond, “I just want them to be happy.”
It’s an admirable goal, but what exactly can parents do to help ensure a child’s happiness? We asked local child psychologist Alison Steier. With a doctorate in psychology and 18 years of experience as vice president of mental health services at Southwest Human Development — a leading Phoenix nonprofit dedicated to early childhood development — Steier has spent a vast amount of her career dedicated to this very issue.
While Steier notes there’s no blueprint for raising happy kids, she shares seven concrete ways parents can work toward that goal — from forming strong relationships to role-modeling optimism.
1. It begins with close relationships. “Human babies come into the world less neurologically developed than any other species,” says Steier. “Babies are not just an unfolding of genetics. They are highly influenced by their relationships and their environment.”
Parents, of course, do not have the power to control every external factor affecting their children. What they can provide, however, is the one key component that is crucial to their child’s emotional development: A positive parenting relationship.
“Relationships are the central focus,” says Steier. “Through their relationships, especially with their parents, children learn who they are and how they feel about themselves — whether they are likable, funny, smart and worthy of love.” They also learn what the world will offer them as far as caring and support.
2. Support through adversity. Even though life does not always go smoothly, the support a child receives when faced with adversity will help that child realize that problems can be solved and that difficulties are not insurmountable.
A parental relationship that supports a child through difficult times stacks the deck in favor of a child being able to “struggle well” through adversity throughout life. Strong families provide a safety net and let children know that when the going gets tough, they will have something to fall back on.
3. Edit your attitude. Parents set the tone. The anxiety level in a home environment has an especially profound effect on children. “Anxiety is contagious,” Steier says. If your children see you worrying excessively or feeling out of control, they will take on that same level of concern.
4. Realize all behavior is communication. A child’s behavior gives us clues to his or her emotional state. Steier encourages parents to take on a reflective stance: What is my child’s behavior telling me?
A child’s behavioral issues often indicate something bigger that is going on. Are children acting out due to anxiety or frustration? Are their needs being met? Has their routine been disrupted? What could be underlying their emotions?
Behavior is not usually good or bad. It’s better to think of it as communicating an emotional state. When children are struggling, provide supportive messages like: “I am here for you. I will help you.” That “always-ness” and that kind of presence is key.
5. Role model optimism. “Children are picking up on cues about whether they are OK or not,” Steier says. “They’re paying attention more than parents can appreciate.”
When parents are dealing with stressful situations, it’s important to project a level of optimism. Steier suggests: “Try not to use discouraging language, but rather the language of figuring things out.”
It’s also important to pay as much attention to the things that bring us pleasure as those things that frustrate us. This can be as simple as celebrating joys and sharing optimism, as these are things that are learned. Be sure to make room in life for simple pleasures, small comforts and something especially important to children: playfulness.
6. Seek help along the way. If your child seems particularly stressed or overwhelmed, seek professional help. A change in sleeping or eating patterns or a suddenly withdrawn or easily frustrated child can be indicators that something concerning is going on.
7. Understand every child is different. There’s no blueprint for raising happy children. Steier’s advice is to “be open to children being unique individuals with powerful emotional and psychological reactions to their world.”
It’s not easy to grow up. Steier calls it a “formidable path.” But with supportive, accepting and thoughtful parenting childhood can be a positive and joyful experience.
Birth to Five Helpline: 1-877-705-5437
Sheri Smith, of Scottsdale, is the mother of two teenagers: Aidan and Sarah.
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