Children in the UK are the least contented they’ve been for a decade, with more than 200,000 saying they’re unhappy with their lives. So what can you do to raise an emotionally balanced child?
We all want our children to follow their dreams and find success. But most of all, we want them to be happy. That’s why the latest research from The Children’s Society, which found that children’s happiness has fallen to its lowest levels in a decade, is worrying. So what can we do to help?
“Junior school-age children can feel overwhelmed by pressures – whether that’s from academic stress and testing at school, body image concerns at a younger age, or feeling peer pressure – so it’s important to support them emotionally to develop the toolkit they’ll need to deal with life’s hurdles [as they develop into tweens],” says chartered psychologist Suzy Reading, author of Stand Tall Like a Mountain.
To help your child be happy, don’t try to make them happy all the time. Protecting kids from every obstacle and negative emotion can backfire, with one study suggesting that doing so can make children anxious, self-critical and even depressed.
“We may want to fix all their problems but if we swoop in immediately, we can disempower our children and encourage self-doubt,” says Suzy. “Occasional anger or sadness are normal emotions and it’s important to learn how to deal with them.”
Try this: “Help children to identify what they’re feeling and let them know that it’s okay to have those emotions. Also, asking questions such as, ‘What could you try?’ and, ‘What could you do instead?’ will help to boost their problem-solving skills,” says Suzy.
We hear a lot about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation (Headspace for Kids can help with focus and calm), but allowing children time for play is also important. This is because most kids already practise mindfulness – fully enjoying the present moment – when they play. Yet children are typically spending less time playing, with a study by the National Trust finding that children today spend half as much time playing outside as previous generations did.
Try this: “Football in the garden, kitchen karaoke or family board games can help kids to bond and practise mindfulness. They also help children to learn skills such as sharing and resolving conflicts,” says Suzy.
Make time to look after your own happiness
Kids are like sponges, soaking up and learning from everything they see and hear. This means that how we deal with our own moods matters – one of the most helpful things you can do for your child’s happiness is to attend to your own. Carve out some time to de-stress, volunteer, enjoy friendships and take up hobbies you love. Even better, do it as a family.
Try this: Talking to children about your day can help them to cope with theirs. “Whether you’ve completed a work project or had a nice chat with a neighbour, sharing the things you’re proud of can help them to foster a positive mindset,” says Suzy. “Share difficulties, too. You might say: ‘I made a mistake, I lost my temper. Next time, I’ll go for a walk and calm down first.’ This will show them that everyone makes mistakes but what’s important is that we learn from them.”
Check in with them
Spending time together – whether that’s 10 minutes over breakfast or while they get ready for bed – can help you to stay connected. Studies show that kids who regularly eat dinner with their families are more emotionally stable and have fewer depressive symptoms than those who don’t.
“Talking to your child and allowing them a chance to verbalise their thoughts and feelings is one of the best things you can do for their emotional health,” says Suzy. “It helps them feel listened to and loved.”
Try this: Got a hunch that something’s up? “Keep the lines of communication open – be relaxed and patient, ask compassionate questions and they’ll soon open up,” says Suzy.
Talk about tech
“Have open conversations about the pros and cons of the internet as well as staying aware of what children are doing online,” says Dr Joanna Silver, a counselling psychologist at The Nightingale Hospital in London. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health advises that children should avoid screens an hour before bed to help sleep. It can be useful to set boundaries, too – think limits on social media or no iPads until after homework (download a family agreement template from childnet.com).
Try this: “Parents should follow family rules, too, otherwise children won’t listen,” says Joanna. “Also, keep conversations open – you don’t want your children to be nervous about coming to you if they see something upsetting online.”
A for effort
Self-esteem is closely linked to happiness but over-praising could cause a child to feel pressure, or worried you’ll be disappointed if they don’t succeed. Instead, research suggests we should praise effort rather than natural ability, so that children develop a growth mindset and know that it’s through practice and commitment that you achieve success.
Try this: “Compliment your child on specific things, like, ‘I loved how focused you were when…’ or, ‘You worked really well as a team.’ This reminds them that there are lots of different ways to shine in life,” says Suzy.
Whatever you do, the most important thing is to find time to talk and listen to your children: communication is everything.
Words: Nicola Down