Every single parent asks themselves how to raise a happy child numerous times throughout their lives. Kids don’t go with a manual, right? The more we dig into the subject, the less we think we know.
To answer that question we need to analyze who a child is and what it means to be happy. To me, raising a happy child means creating the environment in which your child (born or adopted) can pursue their own happiness in a free yet secure way, respecting their specific age needs. That means it will be different for a toddler and different for a teen, and yet different for a young adult. It will be different for every child as every human being considers happiness to be something different.
What we must accept is that our definition of happiness may only partly overlap with that of our children and each of our children may see it yet differently.
This is why it is so confusing.
Now, there are some things that may make it a bit easier to solve that puzzle.
Some psychologists found out that what influences our subjective feeling of happiness is secure attachment. They say that to be happy a child needs at least one adult they can be securely attached to during childhood. The attachment figure doesn’t have to be a parent, although that’s the most natural and common case.
Mary Ainsworth and the Strange Situation Study
First, the distinction between attachment styles was proposed by Mary Ainsworth in her Strange Situation study. In the study, she analyzed the behavior of 100 children aged 12 to 18 months. Each child was placed in a room full of toys with their mother. After a short while, a stranger entered the room and the mother left. Then the mother came back and the stranger left.
Ainsworth observed the behavior patterns of the kids when their mother left and then when she came back, and also their behavior towards the stranger. She noticed three repeated patterns and called them: the secure attachment style, the ambivalent-insecure attachment style, and the avoidant-insecure attachment style. Later on
Researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth one, so now there are 4 attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, avoidant-insecure attachment, and disorganized-insecure attachment.
Securely attached children suffer distress when separated from their mother. They tend to be able to calm down by themselves or in the presence of a stranger. These children know mom will come back and when she does, the child is easily comforted. As adults, people with the secure attachment style tend to develop long-lasting relationships full of trust. They are usually more empathetic, outgoing, and self-confident, and declare a higher level of happiness.
Ambivalent-insecure attachment is characteristic for children who get severely distressed in the absence of their parents. These children won’t be comforted, even after their mother is back. They may passively refuse contact or even react aggressively. In adulthood, these children tend to create relationships that feel distant and cold.
Avoidant-insecure attachment is when a child avoids her mother. The child is indifferent whether she is left with her mom or a stranger. She may either not seek contact with a parent or even actively avoid it.
Disorganized-insecure attachment is when a child acts in different ways, sometimes avoidant, sometimes resistant. She may be confused, not sure how to behave.
But before you jump to diagnosing your kids or yourself, remember that a majority of children have the secure attachment style. What’s more, attachment styles may change during a person’s life. Someone who had an insecure attachment style in childhood may still attach securely in adulthood and vice versa, someone who developed a secure attachment as a child may turn it into an insecure one, e.g. due to a trauma suffered later on.
How to give security
Dr. Dan Siegel suggests that if we want to help our children be securely attached, we should follow the 4 S’s. Our children need to be:
- Seen – physically and emotionally (empathically). It means seeing the child as she is and not as we want her to be.
- Safe – by avoiding actions that may frighten or hurt the child
- Soothed – by helping them deal with big emotions and new situations
- Secure – and finally that’s about developing an internalized sense of well-being by the child.
In other words, first, we need to acknowledge our children are there. Let them know, that we are aware of their existence, e.g. by playing with them, meaningful chats, or simply not ignoring them when we’re doing something and they come to us with a problem.
To make a child feel safe, we need to refrain from frightening them. Easier said than done when your patience is challenged several times a day. We may yell and then feel bad about it. We may apologize, repair, yet still the best option is not yelling.
Teaching children how to deal with difficult emotions is material for not one, but a couple of books. We may empathize, teach them about the emotions, help them release anger, etc. We may show them how to deal with new and stressful situations.
And only when we do all the above steps, can we help the child develop the feeling of security.
A happy parent is a model for a happy child
I always try to remind my readers about how important it is to pay close attention to our own behavior. Children are genius observers and they learn from what we do, not from what we say. If you tell them “Go and pursue your own happiness”, but we never do so ourselves, our children will learn to talk about happiness and not to go for it. And that’s not what we want for them.
If you want your kids to be happy, show them how to be happy. Find the time for self-care, follow your dreams and aspirations, travel, if you like. Do things just for yourself. Just to be happy.
There are also certain practices we can use to feel happier with what we already have. It might be a good idea to teach them to our kids, too.
Gratitude and optimism
It’s been found out that practicing gratitude enhances our feeling of happiness. This happens on two levels. First, we simply realize the good things that are happening in our lives and appreciate them more. Secondly, on the biological level, when we feel grateful, our organism produces oxytocin, which in turn creates more oxytocin receptors. The more of these receptors we have, the easier it is for us to feel happy.
Being more optimistic can also make you generally happier. If we focus on the brighter side, rather than worry in advance, we rewire our brains. This way we subconsciously try to achieve what we focus on and when we do so that makes us happier.
Be present and accept what is
Being present is the essence of mindfulness. We tend to worry about the future or relive the unpleasant moments of the past. However, if you think about it, the future and the past don’t exist. It is the present moment that matters. Just focusing on the present moment, your feelings, your senses, your breath, can help you appreciate what you have. Why worry about “what-if”s, if you can enjoy watching two healthy and happy kids playing on the floor?
Another problem that won’t let us be at peace is worrying about things we have no control over. In fact, we can only control ourselves. Realizing what you can change and what you cannot is the first step in both, making plans, and getting calmer. We can plan to change what we can, but we need to accept what we cannot.
So how do we raise a happy child?
Raising a happy child is as tricky as it is difficult to define and can be something else for each parent and each child. However, psychologists agree that being there for your children, giving them the feeling of security can help them pursue their own happiness as successful adults. What’s more, a happy parent, that can take care of their own needs, is a great model of behavior, since as we all know, children don’t learn from what we say, but they learn from what we do.