It is important for parents to teach a child various ways to cope with unhappiness and other negative emotions rather than try to protect him from experiencing them. Children learn important lessons by dealing with strong emotions and it is not a parent’s job to shield him, but to teach him that he can regulate his feelings and his responses.
Keeping a Child Happy is not a Parent’s Job
If you ask various groups of parents what they want most of all for their children, you will hear the same answer over and over: “Happiness.” Isn’t that what we all want for them? However, it’s not only impossible for parents to ensure that their children are always happy, but the effort to try and make that happen can harm children in the long run.
A child who doesn’t learn how to manage his emotions will become an adult who is also unable to regulate his emotions and will seek out people who will shield him or substances that will shield him from unpleasant feelings.
I’m sure my mother would have said she wanted her children to be happy more than anything, and she found a way to believe that we were. Whenever we complained or protested anything, she told us forcefully: “Don’t you dare cry; don’t sulk, don’t frown; don’t glare; wipe that look off your face; lower your voice; don’t use that tone of voice; don’t complain; don’t curl your lip; behave!” We were punished if we didn’t obey, and learned to conceal our negative emotions.
I know she believed she was raising two very happy daughters, which, of course, she wasn’t. Fortunately, as sisters, we could talk to each other about our feelings, find a sympathetic ear, and whatever advice we could muster for each other. It was enough.
Make sure you haven’t given your child the impression that his being happy or pretending to be happy is your goal. Your child should understand that you are trying to raise him to become an adult with the inner resources that allow him to deal with whatever life has in store. The rain “falls on the just and the unjust,” and it will fall on him from time to time.
Here are 5 Ways to Teach a Child to Regulate Emotions
To raise a child to be happy and to become a happy adult, you must teach him to tolerate unhappiness and disappointment. Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Show Your Child That Feelings Can Be Managed – From the time they are babies, children learn what is acceptable and what is not, and they copy what we do and say. You may have learned terrible behaviors from your own parent(s) but you must become the model you want your children to emulate. Don’t scream at your child to “Stop screaming!” Demonstrate that your emotions can be managed and they will learn to do the same.
- Remind Them of Their Strengths – “I know it’s hard for you to tell him you are really upset with him.” I know it’s hard to congratulate her on winning the prize you wanted.” Let your child know you understand how tough life can be and that unhappiness comes to us all. Help them make decisions and let them practice what they will say and do when things don’t turn out in their favor, but don’t say and do it for them.
- Let Them Know What They Can and Can’t Do and Say – Make sure your children know that it is acceptable for them to be angry, unhappy, and disappointed, and also that they can recover and go on. Let them know that pouting, refusing to speak, throwing things, yelling, and crying hysterically are unacceptable behaviors. (Consider locking-out reality TV programs that show adults screaming at each other and having tantrums.)
- Show Empathy – Don’t negate a child’s feelings of being angry, afraid, unhappy, or in pain: “Stop crying. It didn’t hurt that much.” “Don’t be ridiculous. There is nothing in the dark for you to fear.” Feelings are real and even though you must insist on bedtime., or sharing toys, or taking turns, remember to acknowledge the emotion your child expresses. Empathy shows you care and helps a child learn how to manage his emotions.
- Don’t Use Bribes to Stop Emotional Outbursts – If you offer a treat to soothe your child—“If you stop screaming, I’ll let you have (whatever)”—you are stopping him from experiencing the emotion and coping with it. You are teaching your child that he can substitute something else—which can become dependency on a person, or food, or drugs, or alcohol—to push negative feelings away or to make them bearable.
You should not be your child’s pacifier. It is important to teach a child how to cope with unhappiness and other negative emotions so that he can become a self-sufficient adult.
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