We all want our kids to be happy. Seeing them frolic and explore life with delight warms even the most cynical grown-up heart. But the flip-side is that I feel like my own happiness can get a little too wrapped up in my kid’s — as a parent, it can be so hard to distinguish between the two. When he is happy, I feel it – and when he’s feeling left out, bad about himself, experiencing the lows in life, I’m right there with him, too. We reached out to Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, to gain some insight into ways we can maintain our own contentment (and also let our kids know they’re not responsible for it) even as we accompany them through the emotional rollercoaster of childhood. – Sam Kurtzman-Counter, TMC President.
By Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW
Arguably one of the best things about spending time with kids is being able to witness their joy. What we might consider to be the tiniest trifle – watching bubbles pop in the bathtub, going down the slide head first – is, to children, pure rapture. Their zeal for life is contagious. Who has spent time with kids who has not felt more spontaneous, more playful, more engaged in whatever is happening right here, right now, in this moment?
Seeing your child happy can bring happiness to you, too – and make your heart swell to bursting with love and appreciation. It can even carry you right back to the sense of joy and freedom you felt as a child, opening up doors to creativity and imagination that may have been closed or even locked before you had kids. But what’s important to monitor is the extent to which your child’s happiness, or unhappiness, may be a barometer of your own. If you find that your child’s triumphs and challenges – her emotional ups and downs – are the primary gauge of your own sense of well-being, you may be in for a bit of a rough ride.
As a family therapist and parent educator, one of the most common mantras I hear from parents is some version of, My child is tantruming/not listening/letting others take his toys/hitting kids on the playground – and I want to fix it. Here’s another: When my child is unhappy, I feel guilty/my heart breaks/it’s not fair/I hate to see her struggle – and I want to fix it. In either case, the bottom-line translation is, I’m not happy about what my child is doing or feeling – but if I could change this, I would be.
Now, most parents would agree that a challenging developmental stage, particularly one that involves aggression, is no picnic. But there’s a difference between taking steps to navigate unfamiliar territory, and feeling a sense of urgency to fix things and make the behavior stop. When you feel a sense of urgency and anxiety about your child’s behavior or feelings, that’s a surefire sign that you have an emotional investment in what he does or doesn’t do. You are implicitly sending a message to your child that unless or until he behaves or feels the way you want him to, you will not be happy. In other words, you are tethering your well-being to his.
Think back to your own childhood and your parents’ interest in your behavior and choices. Did they communicate that you knew best, or that they did? Did they give you permission to fail and make mistakes, or did they try to control you with lots or rules – or hover to make sure you didn’t get hurt at all? What did those actions do to your sense of self-esteem and confidence? Did you grow up believing that you had the power to make your parents happy, or conversely, that you were responsible for their disappointment? How did that feel?
Now that you are the parent, you have an alternative: plug into a different source. Rather than riding the choppy waters of your child’s ups and downs, which leaves most parents feeling exhausted and depleted, take responsibility for your own happiness. Give yourself permission to feel joy and empathy along with her accomplishments and setbacks, but don’t let them define you. Take the time to discover – or rediscover – what really fuels you. Hint: it is probably not making sure that the house is clean, the fridge is full, or the bills are paid. It may be puttering in the garden, actually reading one of the fiction books on your nightstand, taking a yoga class, seeing a movie with a girlfriend – you know, a grownup activity (remember those)? Yes, it is OK to do something fun just for yourself, that does not include your child. No, you do not need to feel guilty, and he will not resent you for it – in fact he (and your partner) will likely find a happier mommy at the end of the day, which is win-win for all.
Simply deciding to make your happiness an inside job – and your first priority as a parent – will begin to dissolve any liability you may have unconsciously given your child for your own emotional well-being. What’s more, you’ll find that when generated from within, your happiness – just like your child’s – is contagious.
Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, is a regular contributor in our extraordinary stable of experts at The Mother Company. She is co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a company that offers collaborative consultation, education, parenting groups, counseling, and products to parents of children birth to five years. She is co-creator of the book and DVD “The Sleepeasy Solution”, and also maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist. Check out more of Jennifer’s helpful articles: Tantrums, Testing, & Talking Back, When You Don’t Like Your Child, Nightmares, and In Search of the Holiday Spirit.
The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.