By Paige Trevor
” The US Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself .” – Benjamin Franklin
“I just want them to be happy!” That’s what many of us say when we talk about raising our kids. But how exactly do we achieve this goal? The pressure to get kids into college has resulted in academics being introduced at younger and younger ages, and specialization in a sport by the age of 11 has become the rule. Stir in electronics, social media and parents working more and more, and you have a recipe for confusion, anxiety and unhappiness. How can we possibly raise happy kids?
For advice and solutions, I consulted Katie Hurley, LCSW, author of “The Happy Kids Handbook” and “No More Mean Girls.” Hurley agrees with Ben Franklin. While we can’t give our kids happiness, we can do a lot to help them learn how to pursue their own happiness.
Hurley: So many parents are caught off guard when kids start to experience any sort of stress or even mild anxiety that isn’t necessarily diagnosable. I was getting a lot of phone calls and seeing a lot of kids who didn’t necessarily need therapy so much as just a little extra support at home.
Hurley: Parents feel pressure from a lot of different sources. So, when their kids have overreactions or heightened reactions to situations that are seemingly small to parents or teachers, the parents feel responsible. They feel like they are doing something wrong or have done something wrong. Kids have ups and downs. They have a wide variety of emotions on any given day. That’s sort of par for the course. I think we have pathologized a lot of normal things because we are always seeing perfection on social media. We think we need to make our kids happy all the time, and they are not going to be.
Hurley: The big secret to the whole thing is that happiness is an inside job. You can buy your kids all the things, you can take them on all the trips, you can sign them up for all the classes and extra-curriculars, but it’s up to all of us to figure out what makes us tick as individuals. Nobody is happy all day long every single day of the week. That’s unreasonable. How do you cope with hard moments, days and weeks?
So, first of all, we need to help build kids up so they know those days are coming. And also, they know they can cope with them. They can practice different skills and figure out which ones work for them.
Hurley: It’s normal for us to have a blueprint in our minds of how we think things will go, and what parenting is going to be like and what our kids are going to be like. But they all come out in their own way. They are not supposed to be like us, they are supposed to be like themselves. We are so busy trying to fix them all the time and give them what we think they need. If we really get down to their level and let them tell us who they are, we can do a better job of helping them thrive.
Hurley: Play, it is the secret sauce. Playing is what kids do. It’s what comes naturally to them and it’s how they learn, how they work through big feelings. It’s really how they learn to count and read and do all the academic stuff we are chasing at younger and younger ages. Educators have known this for a very long time. You can talk at them and try to shove curriculum down their throats, but if you let them engage in the way that comes naturally to them, they will learn faster and internalize the information. They are also going to work on social skills and emotional regulation skills in the process. And by doing all that, they are going to generate happiness.
Hurley: It’s all a matter of being willing to slow down and be the outlier. Imaginary play and unstructured time help kids work out conflict, helps them learn about themselves and work through the stuff they are up against on any given day. It’s so good for brains and for souls – and yet we are always cutting it short.
Hurley: Screens are affecting their brain matter, we know that. The good thing about little kids is they put up a fight for a couple of days and then they forget about it and move on and replace the screen with another thing. Bring back analog toys – crayons, wooden blocks, toys with no bells and whistles.
Hurley: No, screens are not playing, it’s screen time. It’s not relaxing, in terms of settling your brain down and true relaxation – screens are not relaxing.
Hurley: The hard thing is that we parents get embarrassed playing. We think it’s a waste of time and we don’t want to do the voices and we just feel weird. Kids don’t feel that way. We need to learn to let go and let ourselves get bossed around, even if it’s for only 10 minutes. We worry that it has to be a huge block of time and it has to be meaningful. It doesn’t! Let the kids drive the play, all you have to do is sit there and wear the crown, they will give you your lines, just follow the directions. If you let yourself play for a bit, and don’t rush to the next thing, you will find that kids are soon satisfied and they will continue playing without necessarily needing you. The parents get the pleasant surprise of having time and space to read an article or have a cup of tea. When we play with our kids, it’s a way for them to receive our love and esteem.
Hurley: Now we are so attuned to looking for signs of anxiety that we forget that it’s normal for kids to have anxiety. It’s ok if they feel stress. They aren’t going to fail if they miss a couple of things. If your child expresses strong emotion, it’s not pathology. It doesn’t mean they need an intervention. They are calling out for some assistance. Slow down, check in, spend some time playing.
Learn more from Katie Hurley online! Watch a webinar recording featuring Katie Hurley from March 2020.
This article appeared in the March 2020 edition of Washington Parent Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
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