This article is written by Ash Nayate and was published in Great Health Guide (February 2016 – issue 8).
Parenting: Do You Want To Have Happy Kids? Part 1 – written by Ash Nayate
Happiness. It’s highly sought after and yet sometimes it seems so elusive. It’s one of the things that we want most in the world for our kids, alongside health. We want our kids to be healthy and happy. And most of us go to extraordinary lengths to ensure it.
We know a lot about health and how to boost our kids’ chances of being in an optimal physical state. But what about happiness? In my experience, most of us don’t know much about teaching our kids how to be happy. In the Western world, we view happiness as something that strikes randomly, perhaps only amongst the privileged few. But materialism and superficiality aren’t synonymous with happiness. Nor are they synonymous with health. Just as people who are rich and thin aren’t necessarily healthy.
The good news is that happiness is a learned habit. More specifically, it’s a set of habits, much like regular exercise and healthy eating in achieving good health. Teaching kids the habit of happiness can start right from infancy. Childhood is actually an excellent time to start building ‘happy habits’, because the young mind is primed to learn. We just need to do it in a developmentally appropriate way.
The concept of happiness is quite an abstract one and it can be challenging to explain to children (particularly in the first 7-8 years or so). Young kids are very literal in their interpretation of the world and they learn best through watching and doing, rather than listening. What this means is that we need to focus on teaching kids through practical and hands-on activities that promote happiness, rather than ‘explaining’ or ‘rationalising’ happiness with words (story-telling is an exception to this).
Teaching our kids to be happy is a two-pronged approach. We need to help them develop the skills to recognise and be able to create positive emotions within themselves, as well as giving them the strategies to cope with unpleasant emotions.
Recognising and identifying emotions
For young kids, one of the most important first steps is helping them recognise the emotion of happiness. All emotions are associated with a physical feeling. When we’re afraid, we might feel sick to our stomach. When we’re angry, we might feel hot. When we’re happy, we might feel energetic.
‘Happy habits’ start right from infancy when our kids are learning to speak. It all starts with their early experiences of descriptive language (adjectives) such as hot, cold, prickly, heavy, etc. This builds their vocabulary, which, ultimately, they will use to describe their internal state. From an early age, we can expose our kids to a variety of words through books, stories and our daily language. We can model the appropriate use of adjectives when we’re experiencing them. For example, if we walk through the frozen section of the supermarket, we can say, ‘it feels cold here, can you feel it?’
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As our kids start communicating in words, we can encourage them to use adjectives to describe their daily activities. For instance, while they are kneading playdough, we can ask them what they’re experiencing (what does the playdough feel like, look like, or smell like?).
This gives our kids practice in using adjectives which they can then use to describe their internal state. If we notice that they’re visibly excited about something, we can prompt them by asking how their tummy is feeling, their arms and legs, or their skin, etc.
Kids are rather creative in their use of language – I once had a five-year-old tell me that ‘anger’ felt like ‘clouds’. The precision of their language isn’t important here. What’s important is that our kids are able to describe their feelings in a way that makes sense to them.
Thoughts versus emotions
For older kids, ‘happy habits’ requires that they start developing an awareness of their thoughts, particularly the chain of thoughts (one thought leading to another), as well as the link between their thoughts and subsequent emotions.
Specifically, we can help them recognise that happy thoughts lead to happy feelings and happy feelings make it easier to think happy thoughts. Examples from our own lives can help illustrate this point (e.g. you may say, ‘I was feeling stressed about the traffic, but hearing that song on the radio really made me feel upbeat and I’m not so stressed anymore).
The foundation to ‘happy habits’ is being able to recognise and understand the link between thoughts and feelings (and the physical sensations associated with them). With this foundation, kids can start taking charge of their emotional state, by being deliberate in their thoughts, words and actions. They may notice that certain activities make them feel happy (e.g. playing the violin, jumping on the trampoline or being in the garden) – and they can choose to engage in those activities to feel happy. Or, our kids might notice that they feel happy when they’re with certain people, in specific situations or when thinking certain thoughts. Being in charge of their emotional state means that our kids can deliberately think/do/surround themselves with those things that bring them happiness.
In addition, happiness also requires the ability to deal with unpleasant emotions, such as anger, frustration and worry, in a resourceful and healthy way.
In the next Issue of Great Health GuideTM (Part 2 of this article), I’ll address how we can teach kids resourceful coping skills for dealing with these sorts of emotions.
Author of this article:
Ash Nayate is an American clinical neuropsychologist, which means that she specializes in brain function and how this impacts on our behaviour. She has almost 15 years’ experience working with children and families, supporting them to feel happier, more confident and more resilient. To contact Ash please visit her website.
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