The Misguided Desire of Wanting Our Kids to Be Happy
It’s both human, and typical of how we parent today: At the first indication of unhappiness from our kids, we rush in to fix it, serving, as Dr. Robin Berman explains, like human pacifiers. And while the intention is valid—why let a child suffer, when it’s so easy to take the pain away—the ramifications of protecting our kids from dealing with the ups-and-downs of life have far-reaching consequences per Dr. Berman, including a lack of agency, an inability to regulate emotions, and a future inclination for co-dependent relationships and to look to outside factors for soothing. Berman, who authored the must-read parenting tome, Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love and Limits, explains below how to short-circuit the inclination to always step-in, and perhaps more importantly, learn how to model emotional regulation, even if you never experienced it when you, yourself, were a kid. (For more on goop from Dr. Berman, check out her series on narcissism: “The Legacy of a Narcissistic Parent,” “When It’s All About Them: Being Involved With a Narcissist,” and “How to Spot an Emotional Grown-Up.”)
Unhappiness: The Key to Raising Happy Kids
When I give parenting lectures around the country, I always ask the audience: “What do you want most for your children?” I have yet to hear the answer that I am looking for. The near-universal response I do get is: “I just want my kids to be happy.”
Sorry, but trying to make our kids happy all of the time has been a bust. It’s created a bunch of fragile and unhappy kids and young adults. Think of Veruca Salt in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and her famous refrain, “I want it now, Daddy!” as a cautionary tale. The faster her dad tap danced to please her, the more her tantrums escalated.
Here’s the secret: To have happy kids, you must teach them to tolerate being unhappy. I would tell Veruca’s dad he would have been better served to teach her to work through her big emotions—feelings like anger, frustration, and, yes, disappointment—rather than trying to protect her from them.
We’ve become a generation of Mr. Salts—placaters and pacifiers, parents who unintentionally become their child’s first co-dependent relationship. In one generation we’ve gone from barking, “Go to your room because I said so!” to “Oh, you don’t feel like going to bed? Let’s talk about it for two hours.” And then: “I will lie with you until you fall asleep, then tiptoe out of the room—that is, if I haven’t already fallen asleep in your bed and officially disrupted my own REM!”
“We’ve become a generation of Mr. Salts—placaters and pacifiers, parents who unintentionally become their child’s first co-dependent relationship.”
When you become a parent, you sign up to be an emotion coach, the personal trainer of your kid’s feelings. But why does this essential parenting task get such little airtime? Well-meaning parents devote eons of time to helping their children master new skills, ignoring the truth that, just like soccer and piano, teaching kids to manage their feelings is a skill that must be taught and practiced. How often do you hear: “I am sleep training my baby, my son is studying violin, I am coaching my daughter’s soccer team, we are going to Kumon to practice our math skills…” But where is the Kumon of feelings?
It’s never too early to show a child how to handle his feelings because babies have mirror neurons in their brains. They copy our behavior, essentially borrowing part of our nervous system to shape their own. When parents manage their feelings well in front their infants, they are helping their babies model positive emotional management.
One of the best gifts we can give our children is to show them how to install and turn on their emotional thermostats. This thermostat will serve them well throughout their lives. The science is in. Children and grown-ups who are at home with their emotions are more at home with themselves, and have an easier time navigating work, friendships, and love. Conversely, adults and teens who can’t regulate their feelings more often turn outside of themselves to self-soothe. They self-medicate with food, drugs, alcohol, they cling to bad relationships, become codependent, etc. When these individuals become too anxious, too sad, or too easily triggered, they end up in a therapist’s office or they take a seat on a permanent emotional roller coaster. And that ride isn’t fun.
“Children and grown-ups who are at home with their emotions are more at home with themselves, and have an easier time navigating work, friendships, and love.”
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is populated with what psychiatrists call dysregulated affect (labile emotions)—adults who can’t regulate their feelings. They pout, yell, call each other names, and dish out blame.
The media only amplifies this dysfunction. I worry about the lack of positive mentorship on display. Back in the day, if parents could not manage their feelings, kids could turn to Mike Brady or Mr. Rogers who modeled calm/measured emotions. Today, however, reality TV flaunts the dysregulated affect. A “Housewife” from wherever overturns a table or throws a glass. Presidential candidates name call, blast blame, and throw tantrums on air. This new norm of bad behavior makes it even more essential that parents teach their children to work through big emotions.
This is an enormous challenge for parents who haven’t had good role models themselves. If your parents lacked emotional thermostats—if they yelled, hit, shamed, and withheld parental love when they felt you “misbehaved”—how can you teach your children a different way?
“Back in the day, if parents could not manage their feelings, kids could turn to Mike Brady or Mr. Rogers who modeled calm/measured emotions. Today, however, reality TV flaunts the dysregulated affect.”
I see daily examples of parents repeating bad patterns. At a hotel pool last week, I heard a dad snap: “You are the only kid in this whole pool whining. I am not going to play with you anymore.” That same week I saw a mom threaten to leave her four-year-old in the grocery store if she did not behave. And a father who yelled at his squirmy three-year-old at a restaurant: “You are the reason we have to get take out.”
These primitive antics perpetuate the cycle, producing kids who might grow up ill equipped to manage their feelings.
So what can you do? Here is my short list for how to teach a child to manage big emotions:
1. Tolerate your child’s negative feelings without rushing in to fix them or piling on your own. When you have had a bad day and are complaining to your partner, you don’t want your partner chiming in with how he/she can fix it (or one-upping you with his/her own tales)—you just want to express your feelings and be seen and heard. Kids are no different. If your child is crying about a bad grade, don’t say, “I can’t stand that teacher,” which is simply you piling your feelings onto his/hers. Resist the urge to stop the tears by saying that you are going to talk to the teacher (you are robbing them of their own agency). Instead, try: “I can see you are upset. What are your going to do? What would you do differently the next time?” We don’t want to teach them to look to us to solve every problem, or we might become their first co-dependent relationship—when we as parents over-function, our children under-function.
“When you have had a bad day and are complaining to your partner, you don’t want your partner chiming in with how he/she can fix it (or one-upping you with his/her own tales)—you just want to express your feelings and be seen and heard.”
To build inner strength and resilience in our offspring, parents must become good at tolerating their own big emotions, and resist the knee-jerk urge to rescue our kids from their negative feelings. Parents have to get comfortable being uncomfortable watching our kids struggle. If you jump in and rescue your daughter, you give her the message that she can’t handle her feelings. It’s very difficult to watch a child that you adore become frustrated or upset. But working through feelings is a great life skill. They only get good at it when they are allowed to practice. So one rule of thumb for parents: When in doubt, stay out. Allow your child the amazing gift of working through his feelings on his own.
2. If you treat your kids like they are “fragile,” they might just stay fragile. Talk to your children’s strength, not their weakness: “I know it is difficult to tell your friend that you are upset about what happened, but I am confident that you can do it, and I bet you will feel closer to her once you have.” “I know you are nervous about sleeping at Jack’s house for the first time, but I will be there in the morning to pick you up, and it is normal to feel homesick.” Allow your kids to practice jumping these little emotional fences so when they get older, they can scale the bigger ones.
Let’s go back to nature and take a cue from the mother of all mothers: Mother Nature. If a mother hen tries to crack the eggshell to help her baby out, the chick dies. If we hover and constantly rescue our children from feeling sad, we are preventing them from fully hatching.
3. You have to BE the lesson before you can TEACH the lesson. This one is tough. It requires self–reflection on the parent’s part. The more self-aware we are as parents, the better we parent. Period. Full stop. We need to look closely at what we are modeling for our children. We don’t want to scream at our kids to stop screaming or yell at them to calm down. We have to take a moment to discipline ourselves before we discipline our kids. Parents often ask me if I believe in time-outs. I do—but not for the kids—for the parents! Walk away before you say something you will regret in the heat of the moment. A mother found out her son lied, and without missing a beat screamed: “After all I do for you, this is how you treat me? You are so sneaky!” If she had given herself a time-out for an hour or a day, maybe she could have delivered the message in a calmer way, without the name-calling. If she had taken a parental time-out, she might have been able to trade name calling for a more thoughtful discussion about the value of honesty. Teaching our children to manage their feelings requires that we first learn to regulate our own. Parenting is a great opportunity to raise ourselves so we can better raise our child.
4. Empathize with your child’s feelings—don’t deny them. Denying feelings never makes them go away. Saying things like: “Stop crying, that didn’t hurt,” or “Don’t be scared, that movie was not that scary,” doesn’t make the feelings go away, but it might send authentic feelings underground. Meet your child where she is: “I can see by your face that that movie really made you feel scared.” Emotional resonance creates emotional safety for your child. Step one as parents should always be a statement that says, “I see you, I get you, I hear you.”
Empathy is an essential ingredient because kids are fluent in the language of feelings. Your empathy helps them decode and manage their own emotions. Say to your daughter: “I know you want to stay up honey—I get it—but bedtime is 8pm.” In a loving way, you are holding both her feelings and the line. As parents we often skip the empathy part and go straight to teaching: “Give him back the Lego,” versus, “I can see you want the Lego, but Jack was playing with it.” Or, “I know you really want to go to Jane’s party, but there are no parents supervising, so I am so sorry, but you can’t go.” You want to acknowledge that you see them, and that you get them—empathy diffuses big feelings.
5. Ask yourself what does it mean to you? Don’t confuse your needs with theirs. Often, an inability to handle our kid’s sadness has everything to do with our own childhood. When your child is upset and you start feeling anxious or sad, ask yourself: “What does this mean to me?” What are your child’s tears or disappointment bringing up for you? If you find yourself crying hysterically because your child has been cut from a team, is it because you got cut from a team? If it really bugs you when your child is always asking for things, is it because you were not allowed to have needs or a voice as a kid? As the saying goes, Hysterical is historical: If we are overly charged up about a situation with our kids, it often has more to do with our own history. Use your charged feelings as an opportunity for your own growth. If you can figure out why you have so much heat around a particular issue that your child is having, it might just free both of you.
6. Don’t trade feelings for food, presents, or electronic devices. If we don’t want our kids turning outside themselves to soothe their feelings then we have to stop saying, “If you stop crying, I will get you a cookie,” or, “You’re bored, you’re upset, you can play games on my phone.” Don’t even get me started with using electronic devices as pacifiers. You might stop their tears in the short-term, but I promise that you will be much better off in the long-term letting your kid practice feeling their feelings. I once heard that emotion has the word motion in it: Let your kids work through feelings; don’t try to dam them up. Where we get stuck with our kids is often a great growth opportunity for all of us. Children will not break down from their big feelings, they will learn to work through them. A big part of mental health is feeling at home with your emotions, knowing that you will not have to avoid feelings, or numb them, but knowing that you have the emotional flexibility and emotional resilience to feel safe with yourself.
“Children will not break down from their big feelings, they will learn to work through them.”
Imagine if all of us learned to manage our emotions, if every child and grown-up learned to install and regulate an emotional thermostat. We’d build a society where couples could have their needs met and co-workers could problem solve together smoothly, a world where violence would be diminished and relationships less fraught. We’d still have our disappointments and our frustrations, but we’d have an emotional tool box to handle the challenges.
So the next time I give a parenting lecture and ask the audience what they want most for their kids, I would swoon if someone said: “I want to raise kind kids who can manage their feelings.” That, I can assure you, is one giant step toward raising a happy child.