Don't focus on happiness; instead, help your kids build resilience

Parents want their kids to be happy, but having a strong will will help them deal with the inevitable problems they will face in life.

From Becky Kennedy's GOOD INSIDE: A Guide to Become the Parent You Want to Be. Dr. Becky Kennedy has the copyright until 2022. Harper Wave is a brand name of HarperCollins Publishers. We're allowed to use it. Every right is kept.

A mother tells me, "My kids should be happier than they are." "They have everything they could ever need, but all this small stuff still bothers them."

A father tells me in my office, "My daughter worries about such big things like homelessness, death, and unfairness around her, and she's only seven!" "I tell her all the time, 'Stop worrying! Let's think about all the good things in your life!' I told her, but she still can't sleep at night.

A mother tells me, "I was a pretty lonely and sad child." "I want to raise my kids differently than my parents raised me. My partner gets mad at me because he says I'm always coming to the rescue and making life too easy for our kids. How bad is that? Dr. Becky, don't you want your kids to be happy?"

Do I want to see my children happy? Sure! Of course! But I don't think these parents are really talking about happiness. I think there's more going on than meets the eye. Think about this: What really makes people happy? Does making sure our kids never worry or feel alone and always feel good give them the tools they need to be happy on their own? When we say, "I just want my kids to be happy," what do we really mean? What do we mean when we tell someone to "cheer up," "You have a lot to be happy about," or "Why can't you just be happy?" I, for one, don't think we're talking as much about making people happy as we are about keeping them from being afraid and upset. Because when we only think about happiness, we ignore all the other feelings that will come up in our kids' lives. This means we don't teach them how to deal with those feelings. Again, how we teach our kids to deal with pain or trouble by how we treat them will affect how they think about themselves and their problems for many years to come.

No parent I know doesn't want the best for their children. I want the best for my kids, so count me in! Still, I'm not sure that "just being happy" is "the best" for them. Happiness isn't as interesting to me as being strong. After all, the only way to grow happiness is to control stress. Before we can feel happy, we have to feel safe. Why do we need to learn how to control the hard things first? Why can't happiness just "win" and "beat" all other feelings? That would make things a lot easier! Helping your child build resilience isn't easy, but I promise it's worth it. Helping your child build resilience takes hard work and time, just like everything else in life.

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Imagine that your body is a big jar. There are all the different feelings you could ever have floating around. Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that there are two main types of emotions: ones that make you feel upset and ones that make you feel "better." We have every feeling under the sun in our emotion jar. The size of each emotion and, by extension, the amount of space it takes up in the jar, changes all the time. Now, keep in mind that our bodies have a built-in alarm system and are always looking for danger first. When we can't deal with emotions like disappointment, frustration, envy, and sadness—when they take up all the space in the emotion jar—our bodies start a stress response.

And it's not just the fact that we're feeling bad that makes our bodies feel unsafe. We can also feel upset about being upset, or we can be afraid of being afraid. In other words, if there's no real physical threat, but just the "threat" of uncomfortable, overwhelming emotions, when we start thinking, "Ah! I need to make this feeling go away right now," the distress gets worse and worse, not because of the original experience, but because we think these negative emotions are wrong, bad, scary, or too much. In the end, this is how a person starts to feel anxious. Anxiety is the inability to deal with pain. It's the feeling that you don't want to be in your body, that you should be feeling something else at that moment. And this isn't because people are "downers" or "see the glass as half-empty." It's because of evolution. If we think that the feelings inside us are too strong and scary, our bodies won't let us "relax." So, where is the joy in this? Well, it's pretty crowded. It can't be seen.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. The more feelings we can control—frustration, disappointment, envy, and sadness, for example—the more room we have to grow happiness. By controlling our emotions, we create a cushion around them, which softens them and keeps them from eating up the whole jar. First the rules, then happiness. And this affects how we raise our kids: the more feelings we can name and accept from them (again, this doesn't mean behaviors), the more feelings they will be able to handle safely, which will help them feel more at home with themselves.

Do I want happiness for my children? Yes, without a doubt. I'm so focused on building resilience because I want them to be happy as kids and as adults. In many ways, resilience is being able to feel many different emotions and still feel like ourselves. Resilience helps us get over stress, failure, mistakes, and other bad things that happen in our lives. Happiness comes from being able to bounce back from hard times.

Stress and struggle are unavoidable parts of life, so building resilience doesn't make us immune to them. However, our resilience does affect how we deal with and experience hard times. People who are strong are better able to deal with problems when they come up. Here's a useful equation, even if it's a bit too simple: stress + coping = internal experience. What's good? Resilience is not a fixed trait that kids either have or don't have. It's a skill that can be learned, and parents should try to teach it to their kids from a young age. We can't always change the things that stress us out, but we can always work on being more resilient.

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