Family Health

The ultimate goal of parenting: How to raise a happy child

Ask any parent what they want most for their child, and the answer is almost always the same – happiness. From that first toothless grin and the infectious sound of a toddler’s laughter, to a junior infant skipping into class, a happy child is the ultimate parenting success. And parents would do anything to be able to gift their child happiness.

But happiness is not something that can be bestowed on anyone, not even your own child. Of course, an ice-cream topped with sprinkles is guaranteed to induce a giddy smile, but real happiness is something much deeper than the fleeting moments of getting what you want.

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Dr Malie Coyne is a clinical psychologist and lecturer in NUIG. She tells Mothers & Babies just exactly what happiness is.

“Happiness is a state and not something which can be maintained indefinitely. No matter what age we are, life presents us with a colourful rainbow of emotions. The more accepting parents and children are of this range and the less we try to pursue the ‘ideal’ of happiness, the more we can appreciate each moment,” she says.

While parents cannot give their child happiness, they do have a vital role in shaping their child’s ability to experience it, to nurture their inclination towards this contented state. But before that, they must first focus on their own happiness and wellbeing.

“All parenting begins with you,” Dr Coyne explains. “To be a calm, loving and empathic parent, you need to take good care of yourself. Parental self-care is about achieving balance and filling your cup so you have something to give to the many roles you play in your life, be it mother, father, partner, friend, carer or worker. If you take a pro-active approach to nurturing your self-care, you are far more likely to have the physical and emotional reserves to take on the unpredictability of what each parenting day brings.”

Dr Coyne also points out that some parents are more likely to feel the external pressures of the world and compare themselves to others, which leads them to unconsciously pass on a focus on extrinsic values (eg achieving high marks) rather than intrinsic values (eg enjoying the moment). “This is by no means a parent’s fault as this may have been instilled in them from their own childhood experience,” she says. “Unfortunately this can lead to lower self-esteem and increased rates of depression and anxiety in children and adults alike. If children were rewarded more for showing kindness to themselves and others, and for engaging in intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic goals, they’d be much happier and less anxious.”

Fostering happiness in your child begins from the day they’re born. But before the nurturing begins, do some babies have an advantage in that they might be born with a natural propensity for it?

Fiona O’Farrell, specialist paediatric occupational therapist, doesn’t believe so.

“While babies are born with an innate predisposition, the infant period is a critical time for the development of infant mental health,” Fiona says. “A baby who has their emotional and physical needs responded to as opposed to being left on their own to cry will feel more secure and comforted. These are the foundations for the development of infant mental health. A baby who is forced into a sleep routine, for example, will feel more stressed and therefore will not feel secure and comforted, which are important for happiness.”

Dr Malie Coyne adds that as your child gets older, their nature will ultimately influence their disposition.

“While happiness can be considered a mood rather than an inborn trait, certain aspects of your child’s temperament, like whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, or whether they meet the world with fear or openness, can impact on their experience of happiness as they get older,” she says. “So, rather than a temperament dictating happiness, happiness can be seen as a choice where we use our inborn qualities to meet the world with self-directedness, meaningful engagement with others, and living a life worth living.”

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As babies are non-verbal, it can be difficult for parents to know what their little ones are feeling. Perhaps this is why mams and dads spend so long pulling funny faces and making silly sounds – they’re looking for some kind of response or reassuring smile that they’re on the right track with their parenting. Dr Coyne explains how this process is actually a crucial interplay and it’s how young babies communicate contentment in their ‘serve and return’ reciprocal interaction.

“[Babies] naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expression and gestures, and parents respond with similar vocalising and gesturing. This process is fundamental to the wiring of their brains and marks the beginning of your baby feeling understood, building a firm foundation for self-esteem,” she says. “Your baby being happy or content is dependent on infant mental health, which refers to how they develop socially and emotionally from birth to age three.

This happens within the scared crucible of their attachment relationship with you, which is where their sense of self and the world develops. The quality of child-parent attachment bond is the foundation for a child being able to manage their emotions and provides them with a ‘psychological immune system’ for dealing with future stressful situations and promote wellbeing and resilience.”

Fiona O’Farrell says during these early months, it’s important to get to know your baby as an individual and learn how to respond to their needs – especially when it comes to sleeping.

“Do not worry if your baby is not sleeping though the night,” she says. “There is a lot of emphasis in today’s society around the myth that if your baby is sleeping through the night, then he’s a good baby. This puts additional pressure on parents and heightens parental stress. When you are stressed as a parent it becomes more difficult to be totally responsive to your baby’s needs, as well as your own. It is reassuring to know babies are not meant to sleep through the night as they have not yet developed the ability to link sleep cycles together.”

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Dr Coyne says that when a baby’s need for love and comfort is met, they will be calmer and grow up more confident. “Close skin-to-skin body contact, postnatally and beyond, significantly improves the physical and mental health and wellbeing for both mother and baby,” she says. “Holding, smiling, and talking to your baby releases a loving hormone in you and your baby. This makes you both feel calm and happier. Looking at your face is the best way for babies to learn. Talking, listening and smiling helps your baby’s brain to grow. Despite pressure to buy the latest gadget, what matters most to your baby and their sense of security is having quality time with you.”

As babies grow into toddlers, they learn how to vocalise their feelings and also become more outwardly expressive. Squeals of delight when their favourite toy is produced or clapping hands to their favourite song are definite indicators of what they’re feeling. But what about the introverted child? Do children who don’t express their happiness as obviously or dramatically also feel it less? Not so, says Dr Coyne.

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“A child displaying outward contentment and giddiness is not necessarily happier than a child who expresses contentment in a less expressive way,” she says. “Just because society says that being outgoing is desirable doesn’t mean this is true. As a parent, accepting your child as they are, whether their temperament leans more towards extroversion or introversion, will most nurture their self-esteem and their overall wellbeing. Honour your child’s temperament, embrace them for the special person they are, and support them in any way you can.”

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How to foster happiness in your child

By Dr Malie Coyne

● First and foremost, nurture your own happiness and develop compassion for yourself as a parent. “Good enough” is enough. If you need support, there is no shame and reach out.

● Invest in your relationship with your child no matter their age. Show them how much you love them. Hug them, delight in them, play with them, read to them. Your love means everything to them.

● Honour your child for who they are and don’t try to change them. If possible, refrain from criticising them and try to encourage their uniqueness and strengths instead.

● Reward your child for showing kindness to themselves and others. Help them to see the value of meaningful intrinsic goals as opposed to performance-based extrinsic goals.

● Play is a child’s bread and butter, and is crucial for every aspect of their development. Take time to play with your child, and encourage them to play with others and by themselves.

● If you don’t want your child to be helpless, help… less. As they develop, encourage your child to do more things for themselves and enable adult-free time.

● Setting boundaries and modelling your expectations will help them feel safer with you as their anchor. Limit screen time and encourage healthy routines (ie sleep, exercise, food).

● Talk to your child in an age-appropriate way about sensitive issues (eg sex, puberty, death, violence) and don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Your honesty will pay off.

● Taking your child’s distress seriously and acknowledging their experience as valid for them gives them an experience of being safe as they learn about feelings and builds empathy.

● Give your child opportunities to socialise with peers and with people of all different ages, cultures and backgrounds. Open up their minds to the treasures of the world around them.

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