Why Having Happy Children Isn’t Always a Good Thing
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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You know the old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think this was intended to keep kids from blurting out impolite truths like, “This dinner is terrible, Grandma!” But many of us have taken things a bit too far. In many families, children are forbidden to be angry, unhappy, frustrated, or afraid. Negative emotions have become taboo.
Just listen to the moms and dads around you. They tell a child, “Oh, no, you don’t really hate your brother. Give him a kiss and a hug.” They say, “If you’re going to be in such a temper, go to your room!” They say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be such a baby.” Children who express the emotions they honestly feel are corrected, if those emotions are negative. It’s as if happy talk is the only talk that’s allowed.
This is silly and it’s also unfair. We grownups feel completely justified in sharing our bad moods with everyone around. We yell, we fume, we stomp around and slam things. We feel justified in our expressions of anger and feel just as justified when we sulk, sigh, and express our unhappiness. Moms and dads are allowed the complete range of emotions and even though we might try to tone things down when we’re near the kids, we certainly don’t keep things bottled up when the children aren’t around.
But children are often restricted to expressing a narrow range of emotions. We don’t want to hear them when they’re angry. We expect kids to be civil and calm much more than we expect of ourselves to be, even though children are far less able to control themselves.
So what do we do? We hate it when children yell, throw tantrums, whine and pout. How can we allow kids to express all the emotional bandwidth they actually have without getting angry ourselves?
- Lower your expectations. Life isn’t always happy. For children, especially, when events frequently seem out of their control, a serene morning is hard to come by. So avoid being surprised when kids get upset. They don’t always have to be happy.
- Give up being 100% responsible. You know very well that you can’t make someone else happy. If your child is unhappy right now, that’s not necessarily your fault and it’s not necessarily your responsibility to fix. If there’s something you can do to cheer someone up, fine, but your child’s mood doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
- Avoid emotional contagion. Bad moods can infect everyone around if you let them. You’re not being heartless if you don’t join your child in feeling sad, mad, or bad. By staying calm and unruffled yourself, you keep the entire day from spiraling out of control.
- Be supportive. Many times a child’s disruptive actions are meant to share feelings that are hard to express another way. So your recognition of your child’s feelings might be exactly what is wanted. Say, “I can see you are upset,” or “You feel really angry right now.” Ask your child to tell you about it. Help your child in alternative ways of expressing what’s going on.
There’s a fine line here. Give your children the freedom to feel and express the full range of emotions without having to join your child in expressing negative feelings too. But watch out that you’re not so uninvolved and cool that children feel ignored and rejected. Strong, capable people lead emotionally rich lives. Make that happen for your children and for yourself.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.