It’s no doubt the #1 response parents make when they ask what they want for their kids in life: “I just want my child to be happy.”
“I just want my child to be happy.”
We mean it wholeheartedly when we say it. Then we leave that happiness to chance.
We talk to our kids about their feelings, if they are sad or fearful or angry or anxious but we rarely help them to cultivate happiness because it’s not something we were taught to do ourselves. We were taught that ‘happy’ is something that you are, not something that you do.
We were taught that ‘happy’ is something that you are, not something that you do.
You are not responsible for your child’s happiness
Our scientific understanding of what contributes to human happiness has exploded over the past 20 years. We know that happiness is much more than simply ‘feeling good’. Contentment, connection with others, feeling capable and in control and bouncing back when things go wrong are important components. A sense of meaning and purpose in life is vital too.
We might all say, “I just want my child to be happy”, but parents are not responsible for kids’ happiness. They have to work that out for themselves. You can, however, create the conditions within your family that allow them to explore, test, fail, feel, grow, flourish and find their happy.
Start with a conversation
Talking to your kids about happiness is a great place to start. You can start thinking about and discussing happiness as a skill as soon as you have children (or before). It’s a mindset that we develop ourselves in order to model it for our kids.
When we talk to our kids about happiness, the conversation is really about:
• Taking care of ourselves and others
• The things we love to do
• What we are good at
• Our relationships
• How we manage tough times
• Our hopes and dreams for the future.
For primary school years
Talk to primary-aged kids about what they enjoy doing and what gives them energy – these are their strengths. Encourage them to explore and use their unique strengths and celebrate these with them to develop their confidence and self-belief. Using our strengths regularly is linked to happiness and well being.
Conversations about feelings are also helpful at this age. Talk to them about positive feelings and give them words to name their feelings. Explore joy, curiosity, hope, relief, love, satisfaction, pride and awe. Notice the micro moments in which these emotions arise. Point them out and savour them together.
The teen years can be filled with harsh self-judgement as kids become more self-aware and self-conscious. Talking to your teen about being kind to himself develops the skill of self-compassion – a skill associated with mental health and resilience.
Remind him that our teen years are tough, that everyone struggles at times and that he should speak to himself kindly, as he would a friend. This is not ‘letting himself off the hook’ but rather providing him with a source of empowerment, learning and inner strength. We grow when we give ourselves permission to learn from our challenges, not when we berate ourselves for failure.
Focus on what’s right
Parenting is a tough gig. We set ourselves high expectations to grow our young people into happy and successful adults. Often this results in us fixing on faults and failure as we seek to make them whole, perhaps more than we can be ourselves.
But a focus on what’s lacking leads to conversations tinged with fear and negativity, criticism and frustration. It sets the tone for a combative and difficult family environment.
When we flip our focus to happiness, we open our hearts and minds to possibility. We help our kids to see more, do more and be more. Simple, every day discussions about what makes us happy and well creates a vibe of acceptance, encouragement and joy. It helps us create a home in which we can all thrive and flourish – and that’s worth talking about.
Are you guilty of saying “I just want my child to be happy” too?
Forgive me the clicky headline, but this is important. I’ll confess upfront that two words are probably not all you need to raise well-adjusted kids. You also need bucket loads of patience and a Teflon-like ego. Even well-adjusted kids are a handful.
However, there absolutely exists two words that will make a ton of difference to your relationship with your children. And a ton of difference to the parent-child relationship can make all the difference to how a kid feels about themselves.
If you say these words regularly and with feeling, they could well change your entire relationship dynamic.
It’s pretty simple, as these things so often are. The two words you need to say the most as a parent are:
This simple, everyday phrase says so much.
Firstly, it says, I think what you have to say is important.
Then it says, I am giving you my complete focus.
And it also says, I value your experiences and opinions.
A parent who listens helps kids grow
‘I’m listening’ is the antidote to all the ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘would you’s that our relationship with our children deals with on a daily basis. It allows us to step back and let our kids take the wheel for a change.
It might be a funny story that happened at school that day – listening means your child takes the floor and you’re both rewarded with a shared laugh.
It might be a problem they are facing – listening means they feel confident to relax and open up. Having an actively listening parent means they practise expressing themselves without feeling judged.
It might be a dilemma they are wrestling with – listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Listening is harder than it sounds
Listening to our children can actually be super-hard for a parent to do. Often our need to ‘fix’ things means we leap to the rescue, rather than step back and listen. Sometimes we don’t like what they have to say, and our discomfort means we shut out our kids’ words.
Listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Once you become aware of it, you might be surprised to find how often you don’t listen when your kids talk. We are a distracted, busy generation and making space to hear our children out can be hard.
However, if we make it a priority to create space in our days for our children to open up, our relationship, and our children, will flourish.
How to actively listen
Of course, it only works if we actually devote our full attention to our child. It’s important to make space for them to relax enough to open up and tell us what’s on their mind. If it’s not a ‘good time’ for listening, let your child know and set a time (not too far away) that would suit you both better.
Depending on the conversation, make sure you both agree what is private and what isn’t upfront. For me, all conversations with my children are private unless they ask me to talk to someone else about it. We’ve agreed that the only time I would ever breach that privacy is if I thought a person (eg. a friend they mention) was at risk or in danger.
Value the pause
If your child hesitates or is taking time to express themselves, don’t immediately jump in. Show them with your body language that you are still attentive, and give them time. Staying quiet and patient shows them that they are free to talk in their own time.
You might think you already know what your child is going to say, but sit back. Don’t anticipate your response, or jump ahead of their story. Instead, focus on what they are actually saying. Note their expression, body language, the cadence of their voice.
Provide non-verbal feedback
Let them know you are attentive by leaning forward, holding eye contact, and nodding slightly. Keep your face open and your body relaxed.
They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it.
Encourage their feelings
Once they have finished and they have invited you to talk, express empathy towards their point of view. You might say something like, “I’ve never felt that way myself, but I can understand how this is hard for you.”
By telling you about something, your child may be seeking your advice, or they may simply want you to know about something. They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it. This one is really important because often kids just want to ‘check in’ and tell you something, but they’re okay sorting it out for themselves.
Flip it back
Even if they are seeking your advice, it’s a good idea to flip it back to them first. “What do you think should happen next? Why do you think that’s going on?, etc” This is great critical thinking and problem solving practise. You can then offer your POV after they have offered theirs.
Ask open-ended questions
As they begin to tease out their thoughts, encourage them to keep exploring by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that can’t be answered with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “What happened next?”, “What did you think of X?” “Would you change Y if you could?”, etc.
Do you think your child might be a perfectionist? Do they set high standards and then get cranky when they don’t live up to them? Do they expect a lot from others and then get disappointed when they don’t cut it? Are they procrastinating over something because it’s easier to do that than to face the possibility that they won’t do it perfectly?
Perfectionism is a curse that many of us live with but there is hope. Your child (and you!) can overcome perfectionism – or at least temper it a bit so that life is not quite so overwhelming.
High-standards vs perfectionism
Psychologists worry about perfectionists not because of the high standards they maintain for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact many ‘perfectionists’ maintain high standards, but don’t necessarily suffer as a result. If your kid does this, then they are probably not a perfectionist. Rather, they possess a high need for achievement.
Perfectionism is a worry to psychologists because true perfectionists hold themselves to high standards and then judge themselves negatively when they don’t meet those standards. It’s the thinking part that causes the problems; how hard you are on yourself. Not the standards. This can be particularly worrying in kids and teens.
Perfectionism, passions and priorities
Kelly Exeter has been through that battle. She had, in her own words, a breakdown some years ago. Kelly went to therapy and learnt a lot about herself and how she functions in the world. She describes her own understanding of perfectionism and her framework for overcoming it in her book, Practical Perfection.
It’s a great book and I wholeheartedly recommend it if you or your child is feeling burnt out or overwhelmed or ‘like a hamster on a wheel’, just trying to keep up with your own expectations. In fact I recommend it to everyone because Kelly talks about the importance of knowing two vital things about yourself:
1. Your passions
2. Your priorities
I talk a lot about strengths and values and the importance of knowing your strengths and your values for wellbeing.
Passions = Strengths
Priorities = Values
Kelly talks about how not knowing your passions and priorities contributes to burnout and overwhelm. So there’s a good place to start a discussion with your child.
Be sure to see your GP for a referral to a psychologist if you think your child is experiencing excessive anxiety due to perfectionism.
1. Talk about it
Ensure they understand the difference between setting high standards they strive to meet, and perfectionism. Ask your child the questions I posed at the start of this article. They are a good indication that perfectionism may be present. Encourage older kids to research examples of perfectionism to see if they feel it might be a fit for them.
2. Put things into perspective
Perfectionists have a tendency to ‘catastrophise’ mistakes, accidents and imperfections. They focus on the negative outcomes of failure, rather than the positive consequences of getting a job done well enough. Share stories of when things went wrong for you and how they turned out okay in the end. Remind them of times when this happened for them, too. It might also help to gather famous examples and quotes that remind us that mistakes are often necessary to achieve breakthrough.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill
3. Reframe negative thinking
Sadly, self-criticism often goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism. If your kid has a tendency to put themselves down or be overly self-critical, help them learn to put a positive spin on things. With a bit of luck, if they remind themselves over and over that “the only thing I have to be perfect at is trying”, they just might start to believe it. In any case, a positive mantra will remind them that life is not always black and white.
4. Set small goals
To help overcome the procrastination that often goes with perfectionism, help your child break tasks down into small, achievable goals. They may feel like they can’t start an entire English essay without over-researching, but perhaps they can research one aspect very well and agree to simply touch on other key points. Make sure they keep a calendar with deadlines to keep the momentum going.
5. Know passions and priorities
Touching on Kelly Exeter’s work, make sure your child has a clear understanding of what they are truly passionate about. Are they doing something simply because they know they are good at it, or do they genuinely enjoy it? Once they are clear about their passions, setting priorities will help them decide which activities they should devote their time to, and which they can spend less energy on. This will help them learn the value in doing a “good enough” job and temper their inclination to devote themselves entirely to a project.
Are you or your child a perfectionist? Or a recovering perfectionist?
I am a firm believer in the importance of self awareness and self acceptance. Of understanding, knowing and believing in who we are as individuals.
Years ago, I chanced upon the HBO documentary, ‘Suited’. Produced by a team led by Lena Dunham, it introducesBindle & Keep, a Brooklyn-based microbusiness carefully tailoring handmade suits for gender-nonconforming and transgender clients.
It’s abeautifuldocumentary “about custom suits, accepting difference and living bravely in one’s own skin.”
Hours earlier I listened to Emilie Wapnick ofPuttylike speak about how she has embracedmultipotentiality; discarding societal expectation that she specialise in her career, her interests, her life, she espouses an existence filled with many passions and creative pursuits. Don’t be pummelled into one thing; enjoy everything, she says.
Buck the system. Live bravely in your own skin.
I am no multipotentialite in the psychological sense (educational psychologists refer to multipotentiality as ‘a state of having many exceptional talents’) but I am a firm believer in the importance of self awareness and self acceptance. Of understanding, knowing and believing in who we are as individuals.
Self acceptance and human difference
We each mark a place on a thousand spectra of human difference; our looks, our interests, our abilities, our interests, our values, our biases, our likes, our tastes, our gender, our sexuality. No two of us are alike and that’s a wonderful, fascinating thing.
In Suited, Rae Tutera and Daniel Friedman from Bindle & Keep understand and celebrate that diversity; listening carefully to the stories of their clients and handcrafting suits that compel self belief, self acceptance, power and potential.
Emilie Wapnick and Puttylike encourage that diversity; reminding us that we have unique and diverse interests, that difference is okay and that we can each find and believe in our individual path to creative fulfillment.
Self acceptance vs self esteem
In many ways, self acceptance provides the building blocks for self esteem. It is much easier to value ourselves and feel worthwhile when we have accepted ourselves, flaws and all. Self acceptance if about not judging ourselves, not having unrealistic expectations of ourselves, and not beating ourselves up when we fail. Self acceptance is fundamentally about being kind to ourselves and having self compassion.
A great way to introduce the topic with your kids is via The Greatest Showman song ‘This Is Me’. This big, beautiful song is all about self acceptance.
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
Steps to self acceptance
Working on self acceptance during the adolescent years will greatly help our kids hold their own. Here are five ways to help your kids cultivate self acceptance.
1. Play to our strengths.
A strengths-based parenting approach focuses on what a child does well, rather than what they need to improve on. Especially helpful for breaking the comparison habit that our teens are prone to fall into. Instead, flip the focus from what others are doing that they need to catch up with, to what they are already doing very well. The more we emphasise the things our kids are good at, the less emphasis we are giving to things that make them feel inferior.
Friendships can be complicated for kids and adolescents as they figure out their boundaries. Some friendships are not always friendly and can be detrimental to developing self acceptance and self worth. A good way to evaluate the quality of friendships is to ask yourself:
• Does my friend treat me well?
• Can I say what I really feel when I’m with this friend?
• Do I feel good about myself after we have spent time together?
• Do I like myself when I am with this person?
3. Learn to be vulnerable.
This is a tricky one for adolescents, a time of great self-consciousness and resulting embarrassment. However, in learning to be vulnerable – to accept the embarrassments and realise they aren’t the end of the world – we can increase our propensity to truly be ourselves around others. To say what we really think, to express how we really feel, to participate fully in our own lives. Self acceptance can only grown by offering our true selves to the world. Mistakes are not bad or wrong, they are a pathway to learning.
Self acceptance is not about self resignation. We still strive to improve, overcome and polish. However, self acceptance is very much about realising that there will always be parts of us that we cannot change, and putting our energy that way serves no purpose. Learning to jump the hurdles, not make them bigger, is the only way forward.
5. Work on the things we can.
A nice short cut towards self acceptance ironically lies in self-improvement. When we are striving to improve ourselves (within reason – see all points above), we feel hopeful and optimistic. Talk to your kid about building on their strengths and working towards some simple goals for self-improvement. This helps them learn that the best version of ourselves is worth knowing and working hard for.
It’s a fact of life that at some stage or another, our kids are going to have to tackle any number of difficult conversations. Matter of fact, many of the difficult conversations our kids will need to have will be with us.
These are the kind of conversations that many of us shy away from (me!). Others tackle difficult conversations too hastily and aggressively, leading to arguments and tension. Some of us start out strong and forthright, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by tears and frustration, still no solution in sight.
No doubt about it, difficult conversations, or ‘crucial conversations‘ [affiliate link] as they’re called in my favourite book on the topic, are challenging. Thankfully there are some pretty simple tips and techniques for fronting up to a touchy discussion that we can learn and pass onto our kids.
Why are some discussions so hard?
The authors of Crucial Conversations reckon that there are three conditions that make a discussion challenging.
1. High stakes. The outcome of the discussion will have a big impact on you.
2. Strong emotion. No ambivalence here. This topic gives you all the feels – the good and the bad.
3. Opposing views. You think one thing. Your discussion partner thinks quite another.
Keep emotions in check
Some people handle difficult conversations with aplomb. They’re cool, calm and collected. Important messages are conveyed clearly. No one gets upset. A mutually agreeable solution is found. Everyone is happy. Tick. Sorted.
A mutually agreeable solution is found. Everyone is happy. Tick. Sorted.
Of course, these people are the minority. Most of us muddle through trailing degrees of conversation carnage, largely because our logic is hijacked by our emotion. You can bet that our tweens and teens will most likely take this approach!
Many parents fall into the trap of matching their child’s anger or frustration. The ‘discussion’ is very quickly hijacked by ‘argument’ and invariably ends with tears on one or both sides, nothing resolved and a few slammed doors.
Our brains are wired to perceive threats (and threats to your ego count!) and unless we step in with some conscious management of our emotion, they can quickly swamp our logic.
5 steps for successfully navigating challenging conversations
Step 1: Have a plan.
Sounds obvious but it’s amazing how often we launch into these discussions without giving much thought to what we want to achieve.
What’s your goal for the conversation? What outcome do you want? This is not about winning or punishing the other person, or keeping the peace. What solution do you want from this conversation? Think it through first. Be as specific as possible and bear that goal in mind throughout.
You’ll need your imagination for this part, especially if you’re dealing with an illogical teen. Consider for a moment where the other person in this conversation is coming from.
What’s driving the response or reaction that you anticipate from them? Are they frustrated? Angry? Scared? Confused? Do they see or understand the situation in the same way that you do? How do you know? Are you making assumptions about their point of view?
Try to understand their perspective. You don’t have to agree with it, but you increase the chances of a useful outcome if you go in trying to understand their perspective.
Try to understand their perspective. You don’t have to agree with it.
Step 3. Ask questions.
A key feature of any useful conversation is that both parties share their thoughts, listen to each other and build on (not destroy) the contribution of the other party to work towards a mutual solution. You can only do that if at least one party asks questions.
Especially true when discussing tricky subjects with your kids: be the one to put your opinion on hold and seek to understand. Ask questions. Clarify. Use ‘solution-focused’ questions such as, ‘How do you think we could…?’ and ‘What is the best outcome for both of us?’
Step 4: Look for the win, with respect.
Somewhere in your conversation there will be a mutual purpose. A place where you can both win, at least a little bit. Look for that place. Remember too that when having a difficult conversations with your kids, we need to take a step back and be the ‘referee’ as well as the player.
Maintain respect, acknowledge the other person’s frustration or anger or distress (as well as your own), and remember your goal for the conversation. Stay focused on that outcome and try not to let emotion overwhelm you.
This stuff ain’t easy and like anything, practice makes better, if not perfect. A good lesson for us to learn alongside our kids. The next time you have to have a difficult conversation, try these tips, but don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go to plan.
Remember, even psychologists find this stuff hard 😉.
Do you have a trusty strategy for difficult conversations?
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