Is Your Child Happy?

September is here! The kids are going back to school in a few short days! I hope you’re ready for whatever September is bringing for you. That might be no change- which is awesome!

Yay for consistency!

It might be bringing some changes, maybe your child is switching care situations or moving from a care situation to school, if that’s the case, you’ve got this!

Or you might be like me and literally everything is changing in a couple of weeks and that might feel exciting and scary at the same time and I totally feel you.

No matter where you are on that spectrum, I want to make sure that you’re thinking about preparing your kids for that change NOW vs a couple of days before.

I know nobody wants to shorten their summer, believe me, Canadians get it. We get so little of this precious warm weather. We don’t want to wish a single moment of it away.

It doesn’t have to take over your whole life but dedicate even half an hour to prepping them a day and your kids will have a much smoother transition. 

Part of that prep should be documenting the activities that help your child regulate.

We’ve talked about the difference between Quiet and Calm before, and that’s very important information.

Let’s talk about the difference between being calm and being happy. A lot of parents seem to think that being calm means being happy and that their goal is that if their child displays any other form of emotion than happy, that that’s a problem that needs solving. 

What’s the difference between calm and happy?

Can you be calm and NOT be happy?! Yes. Yes you can. 

The Calm Vs Quiet video affirms being calm is about your nervous system being regulated. This means we don’t feel like we’re going to jump out of our skin, we aren’t on high alert, we’re not super excited OR completely lethargic. We’re alert and engaged. If something new or unexpected comes up, we’re able to handle it. We’re chill. We’re in the exact middle between the two extremes. 

How does that interact with emotions though?

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of feeling sad, but being okay with being sad. This sucks and I’m very sad about it but I’m not sobbing and in desperate need of comfort. I’m not panicking. I’m not disassociating. I’m sad. I’m okay and that’s what being calm but not happy looks like. This is how you can be upset but not dysregulated. 

Now, most people think this is a thing that comes with maturity. To a certain extent it is but not intellectual maturity. It’s not that you grow up, you gain perspective, and that allows you to be objectively sad but calm, alert, and engaged.

It comes with nervous system maturity.

An example: recently my Mom was here. My children are EXTREMELY attached to my mother.

She is the Grandma of fairy tales. We’re so so very lucky to have her, and no she wasn’t this way when I was growing up, but my kids ADORE her.

She was here visiting just for the weekend, and then she left.

Both my kids were completely heartbroken that Nana had gone home.

At first they were dysregulated.

They both actively needed comfort and we were sitting on the couch cuddling for a good hour after she left.

Then they were just sad.

My oldest asked if he could go swimming, so I took my laptop outside and did some work while he swam. My youngest asked if he could go play Lego, so he stayed inside and played Lego while we were outside.

Neither was happy.

Both were still very much sad that Nana had left.

Since they were regulated they were able to sit with that feeling and do activities that they generally enjoy without the expectation that that activity would bring them happiness. 

The problem is that most of us weren’t given the space to experience being regulated and not happy.

The late 80s, early 90s, early oughts parenting knowledge was that if we just keep our kids happy all the time, they will never experience disappointment, frustration, upset, annoyance, etc.

Therefore they’ll be wired for a happy fulfilled life.

Cool theory, but it’s completely detached from the science because it looks at emotions and regulation as contingent.

The real goal of the so-called “participation prize” generation was to keep us regulated.

The problem is that the assumption was that in order to keep us regulated we needed to never experience any hardship whatsoever.

What we realized in the late 90s, early thoughts was that….uhh… okay…but that’s not reality.

There are hardships.

There are frustrations.

You don’t get everything you want even if you work really hard at it. These kids were growing into adults who had no frustration tolerance and who conflated emotions with calm.

We had no experience getting dysregulated and recovering because we’d very rarely had to do it.

Often what that meant is that we avoided situations that caused us to emote and when we couldn’t.

We didn’t know how to cope because we’d never been given the space to practice feeling an emotion, regulating, and continuing to feel the emotion.

We were taught that if we were calm we should be happy and not just on the positive end of neutral.

We should be WILDLY JOYOUS!

If we weren’t then something was wrong with us.

Can you see how this created a fear of emotions and confused us? 

Now we don’t know what to do when our kids just aren’t happy.

They’re fine. They’re coping. They’re maybe tearing up sometimes. They’re maybe just not down for doing stuff they usually enjoy.

They’re calm, but they aren’t happy.

Most parents I talk to feel that it is their job to make their children happy.

All. The. Time.

This is because that’s what our parents were trying to do! We’re unfamiliar with how to be supportive of them without necessarily trying to erase their emotions. Without invalidating them.

What should we be doing when our kids just aren’t happy rather than trying to distract them into happiness?

1. Empathize.

We’ve talked about empathy a lot.

Brené Brown is the world’s leader researcher on vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

She defines empathy as “connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle.”

Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through.

She’s also remarked that in order to empathise with someone you have to be willing to see their experience as they see it, not as you imagine it to have been.

Now this is HARD y’all!

It is really friggen hard.

As parents it is really really hard for most people to put themselves in their child’s shoes and imagine what they must be feeling.

Mainly because most of us work extremely hard to give our children a life free of the hardships we perceive to have experienced.

When our children still perceive a hardship where we’ve tried to eliminate one, our egos get involved and ego blocks empathy.

A personal example of this:

My parents never let us order desert at a restaurant… ever.

As an adult I understand this is because my mother is a pastry chef so they weren’t willing to pay crazy prices for sub-par dessert when we had an abundance of amazing deserts at home.

However, as a child I perceived this as my parents being extremely frugal and mean.

Now, I’m not a pastry chef and even though I still love my mother’s high-end confections.

I also enjoy a restaurant slice of cake now and then. I make sure if we take our kids out to eat that occasionally I let them order desert.

The last time we were out, this is now over a year ago because of COVID, my oldest ordered desert, gobbled it down, and then demanded more. I said no, you’re good, let’s go home. He wasn’t dysregualted. He was just disappointed and sad.

I had to catch myself because didn’t he know how lucky he was?

I was never allowed to order desert at a restaurant! But this wasn’t about me!

Erasing his emotional experience wasn’t going to make him happy!

What was I thinking? That I would say “I was never allowed to order desert as a kid, and you wanted two?! You should be grateful and happy!” and that he was going to go “Oh, she’s right, I should be grateful.” ?!

That sounds ridiculous!

I had to be willing to let go of how I imagined his experience to be, and actually look at it from his current perspective.

He was still hungry, he wanted more cake because it was good.

At home if he asked for more cake he generally got it so he wasn’t anticipating being denied and when he was it made him sad.

I’m sad when I can’t have more cake too, so instead I said “You really wish you could have more cake.”

He was like “yeah. I really wanted another piece.” and I was like “I get it. It was very tasty cake. Next time we come, you can have another piece.” Little did I realize that we wouldn’t step foot in a restaurant again for like 2 years, but that’s neither here nor there!

I asked him if there was something that would like to do when we got home, and he said he’d like to go for a run with his Dad, so they did. He was still down by time he went to bed. He was able to experience his emotion fully, and even participate in something he liked.

Validate and empathize with their experience, don’t try to alter their perspective on it. 

2. Make a Plan

Doing something active can really help kids to process their emotions and get out of the funk of right now.

Did you notice how I told Logan he could have another slice of cake next time we ate at the restaurant?

That’s a simple plan.

Next time, I can have another slice. I’ll get to see Nana again in two weeks when we go visit her. That’s a simple plan.

I can ask Mom and Dad or Santa Claus or whoever for that toy I saw at the store that I really wanted. That’s a simple plan.

Making plans helps kids look at the future and reassure themselves that whatever they’re experiencing right now is temporary.

This often helps them to recover.

I highly recommend you document the plan if possible.

Take a picture of the toy they wanted.

Take a photo of the menu and circle what it is they wanted more of so that they can reference it again later.

On your calendar mark when you’ll see Grandma again so that they can see that date approaching and that it is written down so nobody will forget.

It helps children see that we’re not just putting them off, we’re not dismissing them, we’re taking their desires and their concerns seriously.

Documentation holds a lot of weight with kids, specifically because for young kids. They can’t do it themselves generally.

They can’t write it down.

They don’t have a phone to take a picture of it.

The ability to document is an adult ability, so by doing that for them they see that we’re really listening. 

Hope that gives you some perspective on the differences between calm and happy and how you can give your children space to be calm and upset and build their emotional resilience through experience.

If you’d like to continue this conversation make sure you come and join us in the Parenting Posse so we can help you customize this information to your family and circumstances.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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