Do you want your child to be happy?

I’m pretty sure that the answer is going to be, “Yes, of course!”

We all want our kids to be happy. However, parenting with the goal of happiness in day-to-day life is not only unrealistic, it can cause problems!

It might feel tempting to try to take away kids’ suffering. 

Unfortunately, life is filled with suffering- bigger or smaller depending on how old they are and what’s going on in their lives. For a little kid, not getting to watch another episode of a TV show or having a toy break is suffering for them.

It is so hard for us as parents when our kids are unhappy. We want to end our children’s distress when they are crying or miserable.

The thing is- trying to avoid unhappiness doesn’t take us where we want to go as peaceful parents. 

We might end up being permissive. If we’re afraid of kids being unhappy with us or not liking us, we might say yes to things we actually don’t want to say yes to.

If you find that you’re afraid to set reasonable limits because you don’t want your child to be mad or unhappy with you, that may be a sign that there’s some work that you need to do on yourself.

The key here is self-compassion. Remind yourself that you are worthy and lovable even if your child is unhappy with you. Even if your child is telling you that you’re the meanest Mommy or Daddy in the world- you are still worthy and loveable. 

When we are afraid or try to avoid feeling shame, we might fall into being permissive. It’s really okay if our child is unhappy with us!

Another danger of trying to make our child happy is that we often try to stop our child’s big feelings when they are unhappy. This stops them from developing emotional resilience and from learning how to regulate themselves.

Our culture has such a hard time with emotion and with difficult feelings. 

When we see a child who is suffering or who is unhappy because of something that’s happened or a limit that we’ve set, we often try to make them feel better.

Or we are so uncomfortable with our own difficult feelings when our child is in distress that we try to stop them or shut them down to make ourselves feel better. Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are doing that!

I see this happening in two main ways and they may seem contradictory to each other, but there are actually two sides of the same coin.

One side of that coin, we try to stop feeling that way by giving the child what they want. We try to end their suffering (and our suffering) by fixing the problem or making it go away. 

This can sound like “Okay, okay! You can watch another show!” or when a toy breaks, “Just stop crying. I’ll get you a new one!” 

The flip side of this same coin is shutting down the feelings and taking on a “Suck it up, Buttercup!” dismissing stance.

We tell them that it’s not a big deal. I have had clients recall their parents saying to them “Don’t cry about this or I’ll give you something to cry about.” We might say a different version of this like “Why are you making such a big deal about this? You barely even play with that toy.”

Here’s the surprising result: Whether we’re trying to fix it or whether we’re saying “Suck it up, Buttercup!” both of those reactions send a message to our child “Don’t feel that way.” It teaches them that their feelings are an emergency. Your child receives the message, “My feelings must be threatening for my caregiver to try and end them like this. They think I can’t handle it.”

Believing that big feelings are threatening and an emergency is going to hamper your child’s emotional resilience in the long run. 

Emotional resilience is teaching your child that when they have big feelings, they are going to get through it and eventually be okay again. If we want our child to have emotional resilience, we have to be okay with them being unhappy. And we actually have to go one step further and welcome those feelings. 

We can say, “Oh my goodness. Your toy broke. That is so sad.” We have to really be there with compassion and empathy and try to help them move through those difficult feelings. 

When we haven’t tried to stop those difficult feelings and they get through it, they start building emotional resilience. 

Emotional resilience isn’t that you don’t get upset about things- it is that you get upset and then you recover. It is not being afraid of your feelings.

This is what is at stake if we try to end our child’s unhappiness- whether we are permissive and don’t set limits or try to fix things and shut down feelings.

Of course we are going to be compassionate when our child is unhappy and we will listen to them and take their preferences into account, and be flexible, kind, loving and generous towards them.

Even when we do all of those things, there are limits that we will need to set. And there are things that are going to happen that will cause your child distress that are beyond our control. There will be PLENTY of times for you to practice this skill of welcoming your child’s difficult feelings.

Finally, if our children are unhappy- it’s not a reflection of us as parents.

There can be a deep shame trigger that can spiral out of control like this: “If my child is unhappy then that means that I’m parenting wrong and not a good parent. And if I’m not a good parent, then I’m not a good person. If I’m not a good person, then I’m unworthy and unlovable.”

Being aware of this in the moment when your child is upset is key to staying calm. 

When your child is unhappy, give yourself some love, “It’s okay that my child is unhappy. Suffering is a part of life. I’m going to welcome these feelings. And this is not a reflection on me or the job that I’m doing as a parent.”

The next time your child is unhappy, don’t take it personally and recognize that this is just part of being a parent sometimes. 

It’s really hard when these people that we love most in the world are unhappy! 

It can be uncomfortable. 

It can make you do some soul searching about your own ideas of self-worth. 

It can make you doubt yourself and have to re-evaluate what it means to be a good parent. 

This is part of the journey and it’s so worth it. 

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