No one is actually ready to be a parent until it happens. Raising children is a full time occupation that requires unparalleled attention and offers intense on-the-job education. Everyone makes mistakes in the process of helping children grow, everyone learns the hard way what it takes to parent a developing person. A childs happiness and confidence levels are not solely a parents responsibility. But as parents we can do our very best to give children a solid foundation, so that they have the most support possible to grow into happy and confident adults.
Happy parents raise children who are more likely to be happy. Pessimism is even more damaging for children than adults, because they are susceptible to the moods of the adults around them. If you want to encourage happiness in your children, give them a happy home environment.
Exuding positivity requires a delicate balance between being honest and looking on the bright side. It is not that you ignore challenging feelings and situations, or pretend to feel differently than you do, only that you choose to shift your familys focus towards the positive aspects of any feeling or situation.
One of the ways to cultivate positivity and confidence is to help your children overcome small challenges. Rather than coddling children to make sure they are never challenged, or solving challenges for them or making them figure everything out on their own and risk overwhelming failure you provide enough support for children to still overcome challenges on their own.
This form of emotional development support is called scaffolding, offering enough support so the child feels safe to build, explore, learn, and potentially succeed on her own. Small successes at manageable challenges will build confidence over time, enabling your child to feel more confident, capable, self-reliant, and positive about her potential and self-worth.
Make Your Home Full of Laughter and Play
Play is essential for childhood development. Children learn innumerable life skills through play, in fact some researchers have discovered that play is the most effective way for children to learn. It is also a valuable time for parents to learn about their children, providing endless information about the childs temperament, personality, preferences, communication skill and style, ability to concentrate, and level of mindfulness. It can also help you see your childs natural talents, which you can then encourage with appropriate encouragement and activities.
Making time for play is a way to help your child feel valued. If you obviously make connecting with your child in his favorite way a priority, your child will come to understand that he and his happiness matter to you. And play encourages mindfulness, as children tend to be relentlessly focused when they are playing.
Laughter is one the things that glues a family together. Finding ways to make your children laugh throughout the day will help keep peace in the home, encourage bonding, and can help protect your child from depression and anxiety.
Play and humor are most effective when they are initiated or chosen by the child. Activities that children begin hold their attention longer and increase their learning capacity.
Parents often suffer from strong pre-conceived notions about who they believe their children should become. Part of raising happy, confident people who feel comfortable with themselves is allowing them to evolve as they will.
Instead of fixating on your image of perfection for your childs future, let her surprise you. Ask questions about your childs desires, needs, hopes, and joys. Discover along with your child what he is made of, and what makes him happy.
Be willing to be surprised by your childs truth and his joy. What makes you happy may be meaningless to your child, and vice verse. But showing your child that her truth and her pleasure are important to you even in the ways that you differ will empower her to discover herself with greater curiosity and acceptance.
While we want to focus on the positive whenever possible, it is important that our children understand that life is complicated and variable. They should know that it is safe to feel and express whatever emotions they may be experiencing. They should never feel like they must pretend to be something other than who they are, or that their feelings are wrong or unwelcome.
Create an environment where children feel safe to feel and express sadness, joy, grief, anger, delight, frustration, and all the other normal emotions, in constructive ways. Invite them to communicate the truth of their feelings and experiences, as they are happening, by modeling authentic appropriate expression yourself. Teach them how to respect others needs and boundaries, of course, but in a way that also honors their truth.
Differentiate Between Behavior and Self-Worth
Calling children good or bad based on their achievements or mistakes is a recipe for serious self-worth challenges. Children who are overpraised for their intelligence because of their accomplishments often become timid about expressing their gifts, for fear of no longer being considered smart. Children who are disciplined harshly for negative behavior in a way that is connected to their essence (you are such a mean child! How could you be so clumsy?) internalize that as part of their identity.
Instead, learn to praise the effort regardless of whether the child failed or succeeded. Praise the creativity, perseverance, and hard work, not the fact that the child succeeded, without making global statements about the childs identity. Correct the action, talk about how something was inappropriate or harmful, but do not verbally abuse the child.
Discipline and boundaries are important aspects of raising healthy people. But when teaching children acceptable and effective behaviors, it is important that they understand the difference between an action or words that are inappropriate, and being intrinsically bad (or good). When a mistake is made or discipline is required, speak about the behavior, not the child as a person. Communicate in terms of what can be done differently in the future, not how a child should just be better. When you speak about the action instead of the childs character, there is the possibility of improvement, and invites the child to cultivate self-compassion, self-awareness, and inquiry-based evolution instead of internalized harsh self-criticism.
Offer Tools for Handling Stress and Strong Emotions
Children will encounter stressful situations as they grow, and have to process challenging emotions and potentially traumatic experiences. Parents cannot protect children from the intensity of the world and the human emotional spectrum. But we can give them the tools to manage their experiences with more grace.
Teach your children about mindfulness, the ability to be fully present in the moment. Encourage their emotional intelligence by getting them to talk about their (and your) feelings. Model and inspire empathy, helping them understand how other people feel, and how your childrens words and feelings affect other people. Teach them to understand, name, and validate emotions, so they can learn to accept their feelings and ride the waves of life.
Your physical and emotional wellbeing directly affect your children. While some sacrifice is inherent in parenting, no child is served by parental martyrdom. When parents are physically or mentally unhealthy, it has a direct impact on the wellbeing of the children. Parents with depression are much more like to have children with behavioral problems; there seems to be a direct causal link. Children of depressed people are also twice as likely to develop depression themselves. One of the best ways you can support your childs mental health is to care for your own.
Remember to eat well, exercise, do work that you love, participate in recreational activities that nourish and relax you, make time for your spiritual connection if you have one, and tend to your romantic relationship. Happy, healthy couples are more likely to have happy, healthy children.
Work on accepting and healing your core wounds. Chances are that your children will inherent some of the same emotional and identity struggles that you did. Healing your own core wounds will both enable you to be more present with your children, and model for them what self-care and emotional health look like.
One of the hardest things for many parents is letting go and allowing their children to be themselves. But your child must feel free to be herself, or she will never develop confidence. If you try to make every decision for her, direct her into only the activities you think are in her best interest, or in other ways mold her into your idea of who she should be, you will both suffer. Let your child be her own person.
It is also important that children learn through effort. While we want to support our children to succeed, we cannot do things for them. We can train, teach, offer tools and guidance. But we must allow the children to do things on their own, with our support but not interference, or they will not become competent.
At a certain point parents realize that they cannot make a child happy. You cannot fix a little broken heart, or eradicate sadness. All you can do is provide unconditional love, support, guidance, and tools to help children find their paths.
It is also important that children feel that they are not alone. People thrive with connection. Establish a network of family members, friends, mentors, neighbors, pets, and even living systems like parks and forests, to which your child can feel connected. This will increase his emotional intelligence, communication skills, ability to give and receive love, and compassion. Children who feel connected to the world in healthy and life-affirming ways tend to be happier throughout their entire lives. Connectedness, the feeling of being loved, wanted, understood, acknowledged, appreciated, and respected, protects children from emotional and mental distress especially as they grow into adolescence.
Children learn infinitely more about life and how to behave from our own actions than from our lectures. We can talk about compassion all day long, but if we beat ourselves up for our mistakes, chances are our children will, too. Show your children how to be kind to themselves by being kind to yourself. Use positive self-talk. When you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. When you are tired, rest. When you are distressed, find ways to express it honestly without blame or shame. Let your children see what it means to love ones self unconditionally.
Self-compassion strengthens resilience. Teaching your children how to be compassionate towards themselves (by being compassionate towards yourself), whatever choices or challenges they might face, is the greatest gift you could give them.
Raising children is probably the most challenging and rewarding part of being human. Our children become like little mirrors of ourselves, helping us see the full range of human experience we all carry. But they are also autonomous beings, with their own desires and destinies. Our role as parents is to encourage them, love them, and give them the support they need to find their own happiness, and to discover their own paths as they confidently move through the world.
Dr. Laura Markham
Dr. Bill and Martha Sears