As a parenting coach, when I ask parents what they want for their kids, the answer almost always sounds like this: “I just want my kids to be happy.” I completely understand that sentiment and know it comes from a place of love.
When we say, “I just want my kids to be happy,” we really mean we hope they’ll experience joy and acceptance in their lives, that they’ll live a fully-expressed life and that their dreams will come true. Our role is to do everything we can to support that process.
But there’s a problem with this long-held belief—wishing our kids will always be happy. No one is always happy. In fact, we need to endure some adversity to learn, grow, and evolve. When the aim is always to be happy, what happens when happiness is not what our kids feel? Our kids may assume the way they’re feeling is wrong. They may say to themselves, “If I’m not happy, something’s not right. I shouldn’t feel this way. What’s wrong with me?”
How to Raise Happy Kids, Per a Parenting Coach
When I consider my own life, it’s fair to say I’ve experienced times of immense joy and moments of unhappiness and even deep sadness. Neither is better than the other. Sure, we prefer to feel joy. I get that. But in the moments when I was in pain, something in me cracked open and revealed a new layer. I had to explore a new way of seeing things in my life.
What if we didn’t run from pain?
We often teach kids and—quite frankly—ourselves to run from pain. This certainly makes sense. But what if we explored pain instead of running from it? Negative experiences are always there to teach us something. What if we taught our kids to question pain and explore what it’s trying to teach them?
You can use examples from your own life when pain was an important teacher. For instance, maybe you felt disappointed or hurt if you didn’t make a sports team. Or maybe you’ve felt left out of social events with friends. Explain to your children how you felt at those times. Let them in and show them the lesson you were able to take away. It’s incredibly hard to see people we love—especially our children—in pain, but we have to remember it’s not about us. To deny another their pain is unfair. Doing so takes away a lesson, a gem waiting to be discovered.
When we can’t process pain, it festers and deepens. We move further away from happiness, feeling even more defeated. What if we reframed this notion of being happy all the time and instead embraced being a human who experiences and processes all emotions?
When we tell our kids that we’re happy if they’re happy, we inadvertently burden them. They quickly realize that your happiness is tethered and dependent on theirs. This unhealthy co-dependency indicates to the child that they’re responsible for your happiness.
What if we reframed this notion of being happy all the time and instead embraced being a human who experiences and processes all emotions?
When our children are upset, we appear upset as well.
When they’re happy and joyful, our emotions mirror theirs. As a parent myself, I completely understand why this happens. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my kids experience joy, but I also recognize that adversity, frustration, and hard moments will inevitably occur. I want them to know that I can and will hold space for those difficult emotions just the same as when I observe and relish the good ones. I’ve made it a point to show my kids that all emotions and feelings have to be processed and metabolized, not suppressed and glazed over.
Kids need to know it’s OK not to be OK
It’s not healthy to create a fictitious happiness so it appears you’re OK. As an adult, I’m sure you’ve experienced this with your own parents. We avoid sharing painful moments because we don’t want to worry them or be “too much.” We avoid feeling painful emotions because we don’t want to worry or upset others. And we learn to put the emotional needs of others ahead of ours.
As a child yourself, you may have been taught to avoid or dismiss feelings that felt unpleasant. Your parents may have told you there was nothing to worry about. As a result, you now struggle to sit in your own pain, and you might do everything you can to keep your children away from it too. But we know being happy all the time is impossible.
When my daughter was 7, she expressed sadness about the recent passing of a family member. I sat next to her, silently holding her gaze while she explained how she felt. As she went on, she said to me, “I wish we could feel happy all the time.” I continued to sit silently but held her hand and nodded. After a pause, she looked up and said, “But if we were never sad, then we would never know how good it is to feel happy.”
She got it.
In that moment, she recognized the importance of experiencing the spectrum of all emotions, good and bad. I understood her pain but didn’t try to take it away from her or redirect her thinking. I just sat, witnessed, and guided her the best I could.
Now when I’m asked what I want for my kids, I say, “I want them to experience each moment fully and to know they’re unconditionally loved no matter what.”
Instead of always making happiness the aim, consider letting the sad moments in and learning from them. When joy comes back, it will feel that much sweeter.