5 Secrets to Raising a Happy Child

Want to raise a happy child? Follow these steps to improve your kid's confidence and bolster their joy, contentment, and self-esteem.

As a parent, there is nothing you want more than to make sure your child is happy. Their contentment and wellbeing, after all, is—in some ways—within your power. Many of these things are within your control. But what makes a happy child? Is it giving into their every whim—and granting them more screen time—or is it about patience, secure attachments, and validating their experiences?

We spoke with Mary Beth DeWitt, Ph.D., chief of child psychology at Dayton Children's Hospital, to find out what goes into making your child happy. Here's what she had to say.

What Makes a Happy Child?

While happiness may seem rather basic—one is either happy or not—many things can contribute to your child's happiness. External stimuli, for example, may make your child happy (or, conversely, it could make your child sad). Validation can result in peace and contentment, and friendships can be full of pleasure and joy. But there is no one thing which makes your child happy. There is also no way to keep a "happy child." Full-time happiness is a myth, one which is impossible to attain. Still, there are skills you can teach your child to help them experience joy, Dr. DeWitt explains.

"Teaching kids to be resilient allows them to discuss their ability to successfully adapt, positively transform, and return to their baseline despite being surrounded by stressors and adversity," says Dr. DeWitt. Empowering our kids to be resilient sets them up for positive, constructive experiences and helps them learn how to deal with hard situations. It can also help them bounce back, when stressors occur.

So what goes into teaching kids to be resilient? Dr. DeWitt shared a few skills that parents should be nurturing and encouraging in their kids every single day.

  • Problem-solving: In school, in teams, and with friends, problem-solving is a skill that will stay with your kids.
  • Autonomy and self-efficacy: Having control over their own decision-making and being confident in their decisions is life-changing. Teaching kids to believe in themselves is never a bad decision.
  • Empathy: Being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes is a skill everyone should learn. Kids especially benefit from appreciating each other's differences and being understanding.
  • Emotional regulation and impulse control: Depending on how old your child is, emotional regulation and impulse control might not be something they have mastered yet. But incorporating mindfulness into their routine and encouraging them to be aware of their feelings is a step in the right direction.

What Are the Benefits of Happiness, According to Research?

Being happy, proud, and fulfilled aren't just emotions that leave us feeling warm and fuzzy. Concrete positive outcomes are also associated with genuine happiness—and better school attendance, better academic performance, better self-esteem, and better overall health. There is also a lot of research showing that children who don't experience happiness or things like secure attachments, nurturing environments, or adults that validate their feelings, can be negatively impacted.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration and lifelong health and opportunity.

A few examples of these experiences include (but are not limited to):

  • Experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
  • Substance use problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison

These kinds of traumas can impact children's lives and experiences as they grow. But supporting them, validating their feelings that come with these experiences, and teaching them to process and be resilient despite these traumas will make all the difference.

How Can You Raise Happy Children?

While children need to feel supported (and be loved) there are other ways you can help them become happy and healthy. Below are five ways to instill joy in your child.

Foster connections

Parents should be involved in their children's lives, have conversations with them about what is happening, and help them to problem-solve difficult situations and understand emotions and boundaries. By talking through these hard situations, you help your child learn how to handle the problems they're facing now and that they will face going forward.

Model what happiness means to you

From practicing self-care to meditating, reading, and moving your body, engaging in activities that bring you happiness and joy will encourage your kiddo to do the same. Parents should ensure proper health, including sleep, nutrition, and exercise. One of the best things you can do for your child's emotional well-being is to attend to yours.

Practice gratitude

Parents can help their kids feel safe, secure, and happy by expressing gratitude. Harvard Health reminds us that in positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

But how can you foster gratitude in children? Ask them to take time daily—before or during a meal, for example—to name aloud something they are thankful for. Then, make it a regular ritual. "This is one habit that will foster all kinds of positive emotions," says sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., executive director of the University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, an organization devoted to the scientific understanding of happiness. "It really can lead to lasting happiness."

Don't try to make your child happy

It sounds counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for your child's long-term happiness may be to stop trying to keep them. "If we put our kids in a bubble and grant them their every wish and desire, that is what they grow to expect, but the real world doesn't work that way," says Bonnie Harris, founder of Core Parenting, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.

To keep from overcoddling, recognize that you are not responsible for your child's happiness, Harris urges. Parents who feel responsible for their kids' emotions have great difficulty allowing them to experience anger, sadness, or frustration. We swoop in immediately to give them whatever we think will bring a smile or to solve whatever is causing them distress. Unfortunately, Harris warns, children who never learn to deal with negative emotions are in danger of being crushed by them as adolescents and adults.

Once you accept that you can't make your child feel happiness (or any other emotion for that matter), you'll be less inclined to try to "fix" their feelings—and more likely to step back and allow them to develop the coping skills and resilience they'll need to bounce back from life's inevitable setbacks.

Allow fo failure—and success

Of course, if you really want to bolster your child's self-esteem, focus less on compliments and more on providing them with ample opportunities to learn new skills. Mastery, not praise, is the real self-esteem builder, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happinesss. "The great mistake good parents make is doing too much for their children," Dr. Hallowell says.

While it can be difficult to watch our kids struggle, they'll never know the thrill of mastery unless we allow them to risk failure. Few skills are perfected on a first try. It's through practice that children achieve mastery. And through repeated experiences of mastery, they develop the can-do attitude that lets them approach future challenges with the zest and optimism that are central to a happy life.

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