We all want our kids to be happy. But what does “happy” mean, really? And how in the world do we create a feeling in our children? “There’s a misconception that a child’s happiness is the responsibility of the parents,” Katie Hurley, LCSW and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, in stores Tuesday, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But you are not in charge of making your kids happy — your job is to empower them with the tools, time and space to be kids so that they learn how to take control of their own joy.” We asked Hurley to break it down for us:
Trust Your Gut
“Your instincts are attuned to your child, but with all the information out there, you may start to question yourself,” says Hurley. “Don’t. Step away from most advice and focus on what feels right for you.” So, for example, if co-sleeping appeals, do some research and find strategies that will fit with your family’s situation. But if you know that separate beds are better for your brood, read up on how to make that setup work. “With parenting advice it’s important to step back and do a gut check — will this approach work for us?” says Hurley, adding that it’s okay to do a little of one thing and a little of another; you don’t have to be 100 percent committed to one parenting method.
Step Back and Observe Your Kid
Especially in the early years, Hurley recommends spending time watching your kids in their natural state of play. “See how they relate to others at home with family, with a friend over, or at the park with lots of kids,” she suggests. “How do they prefer to spend time — Inside or out? Building things? Scribbling? Running around and jumping on couches?” Hurley warns not to pass judgment, even internal, on how your kids play. If they don’t interact with anyone in the sandbox, that’s okay. “We often look for our kids to perform and do things, but stepping back to see how they naturally are is more valuable,” she says. “The more time we spend engaged with them this way, the more we know them and can parent them as individuals.” Really understanding your kids’ natural instincts can help you find environments and situations that appeal to their specific personalities.
“We are constantly shushing toddlers and preschoolers with ‘Don’t cry, don’t worry, shake it off,’” says Hurley. But she thinks it’s “bananas” to do that when a kid is hurt. “That sends a dangerous message — that they get to judge the importance of someone else’s feelings. Shift that by being in the moment with them and saying, ‘Wow, that looks like it really hurt. I fell and skinned my knee when I was five too, and I know it stings.’” Acknowledging their feelings resets them: You understand, and they feel better.
Cultivate Unstructured Play
Much of the guidance in Hurley’s book relates to slowing down and taking a stand against overscheduling. “We’ve gone off the rails a bit,” she says. “We’re doing tot soccer at age two! Watch that from afar and you’ll see how absurd it is. Two-year-olds need blocks and a puzzle — that’s it.” She notes that lots of parents wonder how to get their kids to play independently, and says that the biggest barrier to this practice is time. “Kids need unstructured time to just be home, undirected,” she says. That means not setting up crafting projects every afternoon or organizing games to play. “Take a breath and let it happen,” says Hurley. “When they say ‘I’m bored,’ try ‘I wonder what you could do?’ Redirect it back onto them to figure out.” It helps to have a kid-friendly area with things they like that are easy for them to access on their own — bins of art supplies, boxes of building blocks, a trunk of costumes. “And don’t stress too much about cleanup,” says Hurley. “With higher levels of play, sometimes it takes an hour to set up and they want to leave it out for the next day — give them the space to do that.”
“Some kids come into the world oozing empathy, and others learn it more gradually,” says Hurley, noting that both are normal but it’s important to introduce empathy as soon as you can. Start with games like Social Detective in the park — stand back to watch and then talk about the emotions you see. Why is that boy mad? What made that girl so happy? Modeling is also big — if your child tells you she was teased by another kid, don’t jump to, “Well, that kid is mean!” Instead, take a breath and get curious: “Hmmm… What was happening with her? She looks upset.”
Give Kids Some Control
Once they understand emotions, giving kids the chance to be changemakers is a big confidence-builder — they learn that can positively affect someone else, and that’s a joyful way to live. Try a weekend family community service project, collect food for a food bank or donate clothes and toys to a local shelter. “Small things are huge in the mind of a child,” says Hurley. “These projects teach them to think and care about others.” With older kids, encourage them to be changemakers for the younger ones by helping to sooth an upset sibling. “Practicing positive social behaviors helps kids internalize empathy as part of a broader positive framework for the world.”
Teach Tools to Combat Stress
Our kids are often as stressed out as we are — and they need tools to deal with it. “Slowing down and being present can restore kids’ souls,” says Hurley, who recommends teaching specific skills, like breathing. “But don’t just say ‘deep breath,’ or they’ll hyperventilate!” Tell them to pretend to blow up a balloon: Breath in slowly for four seconds and then out for four seconds to blow up your balloon. “Ask them what their balloon says — it may be a feeling they want to get out — and then let the balloon fly away,” says Hurley. Visualization is another great tool, especially for helping with sleep. At bedtime, Hurley asks her own kids to close their eyes, take a deep breath and tell her where they want to go. “My daughter will say, ‘To the fairy village,’ so then I tell a three-minute story about a relaxing walk through the fairy village while she drifts off.” Hurley also recommends a “mad list” (write down what you’re angry about and then tear up the paper to get rid of the feelings) and a squeeze ball for school-age kids’ backpacks (so they can physically work out stress or frustration anytime during the day).
Be Okay With Bad Feelings
“No one is happy every second,” says Hurley. “Kids need to learn how to work through yucky times that do, indeed, feel bad.” Sometimes we will fall, or someone will be mean, or we’ll fail in some way — the key is for kids to know that it doesn’t mean they have to be unhappy forever. With the tools mentioned above and in her book, Hurley asserts, kids are able to think, “I can work through this and I’ll start to feel good again.”
(Photo: Roberto Westbrook/Getty Images)