Parents are constantly bombarded with messages and warnings about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, which is why we asked Dr. R. Andrew Harper, Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth Medical School, to answer a simple question: How important is it for kids to be happy? “I think happiness is a critical component of growth and development if you want children to have a sense of who they are and to be satisfied with who they are,” he explained.
Happiness is key, he told us, to helping a child form a positive identity and a sense of effectiveness in the world, in relationships, and at school and work. How can busy parents assess their kids’ happiness and help them maintain it? Dr. Harper offered several tips:
Babies and Toddlers
Some parents are reluctant to talk to babies who can’t talk back. But talking to babies helps them develop important emotional skills. In addition to reading, describing what you’re doing and labeling objects around you, Dr. Harper suggests talking to babies and toddlers about moods. Say, “You seem really happy today!” or “You seem upset,” to help them learn to identify their emotions and describe them – a skill that will serve them well into adulthood.
Dr. Harper recommends establishing family traditions, not just for holidays, but on a weekly basis. This can be a weekend activity, or even a shared dinner on a regular night.
Maybe there’s a can’t-miss TV show everyone in the family enjoys. That’s a good way to spark discussion. Ask kids how they’d handle the TV characters’ situations. Relate the plotlines to things happening in the kids’ lives.
Dr. Harper advises that very busy parents spend one-on-one time, however briefly, with each child. Car rides are a good time to talk.
“Touch is important at all ages,” Dr. Harper says. Teens can’t be carried like babies and might not want hugs, but parents can offer a high-five.
Sometimes adolescent emotions run high and teenagers are too upset to discuss issues. In situations such as these, Dr. Harper recommends saying, “I understand you’re not ready to talk now, but I’m still interested and want to hear what you have to say.”
Some kids spend leisure time absorbed in video games, making it hard to engage them in conversation. Dr. Harper says too much game time keeps kids from exploring other opportunities for fulfillment, but online games can also be a way to bond. You may not be skilled enough to play, but you can ask your son or daughter to explain the video game and what’s most satisfying about it.
Keeping the lines of communication open will familiarize you with kids’ general behavior so you can tell when something’s off and look for underlying reasons. If your child seems unhappy, ask about the changes you’ve noticed and what’s going on. Is there an underlying problem you can help solve?
If you think professional evaluation is needed, your primary care physician or pediatrician is a good place to start. They can rule out medical concerns and recommend further treatment.
What Happiness Looks Like
Happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids have several things in common:
- They’re interested in exploring their worlds, learning new skills, and having new experiences.
- They like to play and enjoy school (to some extent), extracurricular activities, hobbies and social gatherings.
- More introverted kids might have fun with solitary activities like reading, researching topics of interest, collecting, or playing video games.
- Aside from the occasional disagreement, they get along with friends and family.
- Happy kids are temporarily upset by setbacks, but able to move on emotionally and strategize to avoid such setbacks in the future.
How Sad Is Too Sad?
All kids will have moments of sadness or anger. But the following changes from normal behavior need further investigation:
- They no longer enjoy the social activities or hobbies they used to.
- Their grades are falling.
- They have vague physical complaints – headache, stomach ache, “feeling bad” – with no underlying cause.
- They are more irritable or argumentative than usual, for a prolonged period.
- Their sleeping or eating patterns have changed.
- Their energy is low.
- They show decreased memory or ability to concentrate.