The idea of ‘just wanting to be happy’ is contributing to our mental health crisis. So why do we focus so heavily on this notion with our children?
It can feel hugely triggering, stressful or worrying when your child displays ‘big’ feelings. When they show anger, rage, anxiety, grief, disappointment it is often our instinct to want to stop these moments as soon as we can and get them back to ‘happy’ again.
“I just want them to be happy”.
The motivation behind these words comes from love BUT what message are we actually giving when we try to bypass all negative emotions in order to return to happy as quickly as we can?
I’m here today to reframe some of this. Of course we want our children to live happy lives but through striving for happy whilst shrinking every other emotion we are doing our children a disservice.
Happiness as a Destination
How many of you live your own life striving for ‘happiness’ and finding you never quite get there? What will happen when you get ‘there’? What does it look like there? Will you stay there forever? What does this island of happiness look like to you?
To me it is lonely, because only where there is no life will constant happiness exist. Life is wretched. Life is complex. It is ever changing and deep and full of PEOPLE. And people feel. We feel deeply, and that means ACCEPTING that to live we have to feel and we have to feel ALL the things.
My work centres a lot around developing emotional intelligence and this involves teaching emotional literacy (the ability to talk about emotions and recognise them) right from the start.
In order to do this with children, first has to come the acceptance that ALL feelings are healthy. All feelings are good. They may not feel good, but they mean that we are living; and therefore all feelings need to be acknowledged. If we are allowed and encouraged to feel all the things from a young age, we will better cope when those feelings arise throughout life. We will recognise when they reoccur and we will nod and accept and know that they will pass, just as they did before.
With the spotlight focussed on happiness, happiness, happiness, everything else sits in the dark and gets ignored. This teaches our children (who turn in to adults) to push those feelings down. To swallow them down with the lump in their throat, down in to a knot in their stomach. Feelings they don’t know how to discuss, feelings they can’t name, feelings that they learn to carry but not share.
We know that social media can present a facade of wholesome happiness that is unrealistic and we know how damaging it can be. So we should be doing everything we can for our children to show them what REAL life looks like.
So how can you do this?
⚡️Notice your triggers (which of your child’s emotions trigger you the most), and try to reframe them in your mind. What is your child demonstrating here. How can you help them for next time? Breathe. Find ways to respond rather than react. See the emotion as something to welcome and not shut down.
⚡️Acknowledge and label the feelings “I can see you’re feeling really angry because...”
⚡️Encourage emotion whilst offering methods to get it out “I can see you’re incredibly upset right now, would you like a hug and a cry to let those feelings flow?”
⚡️Label feelings beyond ‘angry’, ‘sad’ and ‘happy’. What is at the root of the feeling? Embarrassment, anxiety, worry, overwhelm, hunger, tiredness, disappointment, frustration...
⚡️Express your own feelings when you have them using the right words. “I’m feeling extremely disappointed today because X and it is making me grumpy”
⚡️Apologise for anything you feel you need to apologise for “I’m sorry for how I behaved earlier, X happened and I was feeling really angry”. Repairing is a key lesson for our children to learn when managing relationships and feelings.
⚡️Talk about others’ feelings, for example in stories or people you know. Suggest why they might be behaving in a certain way due to how they might be feeling. “Do you think she might have been feeling really anxious about being left out which might be why she got so angry?” This is not excusing behaviour but it is explaining real reasons behind it. And it teaches importantly that two different feelings can coexist.
Sometimes we are angry because we are anxious.
Sometimes we are upset because we are disappointed.
Sometimes we are anxious because we are embarrassed.
Acknowledgement is key. We all feel stuff and it makes us behave in certain ways. We have to face that square on with our young children and teach them how to navigate through it all. We do feel lots of things, and all those feelings matter and they are what make you alive. Happiness is wonderful but it can’t exist without the rest.
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