Children with summer berries

10 tips for happy kids

The first thing that needs to be said is that kids don’t have to be happy all the time. They need to learn to deal with feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, loss, jealousy, envy, disappointment … all those “negative” emotions we all experience. That’s how they become resilient to the ups and downs of life they will inevitably face. They also need to learn it’s not always all about them; that they are in this life with others who matter as much as they do.

What we want our kids to be is generally happy and grounded in self-confidence and respect for themselves and others, with the ability to feel empathy while still knowing they can ask for and often receive what they want. We all know a generally happy child when we see one.

Of course, for most of us, the automatic answer to the question of what makes children happy would be love, so that’s a given — as long as it’s unconditional. Love is the big one, but then there are everyday little things that can also make a child’s life more comfortable, secure and happy. Here are 10 we think are worth keeping in mind.

1. They eat on time, and they eat well

A no-brainer? Not to everyone. Some people think that eating after school, for example, will “spoil dinner”. And “on time” doesn’t just mean mealtimes. Active little people need snacks in between to refuel their brains and growing bodies. Blood-sugar lows can result in poor concentration and inability to focus and settle, which can have consequences at school.

When kids are calm and co-operative over homework or household chores, and receiving positive feedback for it, they’re happy and you’re happy.

Kids don’t always tell you they’re hungry, either; sometimes they’re so fractious they don’t focus or express themselves clearly. Often, the difference between an unco-operative, cranky child after school and a cheerful one is a small snack such as a few nuts, some cut-up fruit or a home-baked treat — not enough to spoil dinner but adequate to get the blood sugar back up.

What they eat is important, too. Lots of refined carbs will produce those sugar highs and crashes with the characteristic mood swings. They’ll also make them constantly hungry, even though momentarily satisfied. Unfortunately, many of the handy packaged kids’ snack foods are just that. On the other hand, little snacks with some healthy fats and a small amount of protein can offer less bulk but satisfy for longer.

2. They get good sleep

We learn when our babies are tiny what a difference sleep makes to their moods — and ours. The consequences of poor sleep patterns in older children go well beyond mood, though, to affect behaviour, attention, learning and memory. Like irregular or poor eating patterns, they can impact on a child’s performance and behaviour at school.

There’s also mounting evidence that lack of sleep can lead to metabolic changes connected to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. One study found that each additional hour of sleep lowered a child’s risk of obesity by 9 per cent, on average. In the study, the children who slept the least had a 92 per cent higher risk of being overweight or obese.

Having a set bedtime encourages children to understand that sleep is really important. If there is a hard-and-fast rule around bedtime, they learn to accept it without too much argument, whereas flexibility can lead to frequent arguments about going to bed, even when they are so exhausted they are practically asleep on their feet.

Often, bedtime doesn’t necessarily mean sleep time, either. Some kids are allowed to take electronic devices to their rooms and many have TVs in their bedrooms. For healthy, good-quality sleep, there should be no electronic appliances or devices in the bedroom — not even a computer or TV. If these items are there for convenient use at other times, they need to be unplugged at bedtime.

Also, kids are often over-stimulated by watching suspenseful TV programs or playing action games on computers and devices. Quiet time reading or being read to, or even a short meditation together, can have a calming effect so their natural tiredness can take over.

3. They have both structured & unstructured play

It’s tempting to reminisce about how idyllic childhood used to be when kids were free to roam and make their own fun until it was time for meals. In our highly competitive modern world, on the other hand, life can be far too scripted and scheduled, with after-school classes (in case you have a budding genius) and toys that almost do the playing for them.

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that free, unstructured play helps children reach important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones. It also helps them manage stress and develop resilience. A German study had similar findings, arguing that free play allows children to develop the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances and environments. The AAP report also notes the importance of “true toys”, such as blocks and dolls, for developing imagination, rather than more complex but passive toys and activities.

That’s not to say there’s no room for structured and scheduled activities, whether they be sport, piano lessons or play dates, which can definitely enrich children’s lives — when they enjoy them. However, too much pressure to participate and excel can make some kids unhappy and even depressed.

4. They are allowed to express emotions

This is not about teaching them it’s OK to have screaming tantrums in the supermarket aisle; it’s about giving them more appropriate ways to express their feelings so they can gradually develop emotional intelligence and learn emotional regulation.

It’s natural for very young kids to yell and cry and stamp their feet; they’re not going to learn more socially acceptable ways of venting frustration and anger overnight, so you may as well settle in for the ride. You can, however, steadily teach them other ways to express their feelings.

It’s important to empathise with them, which doesn’t mean agreeing with them but rather acknowledging their perspective — even when you feel it’s unreasonable. If they feel heard and understood, not only will it help calm them, but long term it will also teach them how to show empathy to others. Show them how to interpret their feelings in words they understand and then encourage them to come up with more appropriate ways to solve the problem.

If kids feel heard and understood, not only will it help calm them, but long term it will also teach them how to show empathy to others.

Studies have shown that children of parents who coach them in emotional intelligence and regulation do better in a number of developmental milestones than children whose parents tend to be more dismissive of their kids’ emotions. The former are more resilient, have better bodily health and perform better academically. As they grow they are more able to deal with emotional stress in their lives.

5. They are allowed to make choices

At home and at school, children have to live by rules they have little to no say in setting. They can feel like they have no control over their lives and often with that comes a sense of unfairness. Even the most well-meaning parents can take all choice away from their children in thinking they, the parents, know what’s best.

You can give your child choices in things like what they wear, what the family meal will be one night of the week, the occasional weekend family activity and what sports and other out-of-school activities they’d like to participate in. So what if the outfit is two different kinds of stripes or dinner is burgers one night a week? Make them gourmet burgers.

Having the opportunity to make choices and being supported in them — “Good idea, let’s do that!” — builds their belief in their own agency, their ability to have an impact on their world, which will broaden as they get older. Feeling autonomous and appreciated for it brings great satisfaction and instils a sense of pride in a child. Healthy self-esteem equals happiness.

6. They feel heard

Sometimes it’s too easy when you have things on your mind to switch off and give autopilot-type responses to children’s attempts at conversation. You think they don’t see right through that? It may seem to satisfy them, but notice how joyfully they continue when you are really present, truly listen and engage actively in conversation with them.

Listening properly to them teaches them to become good listeners and good conversationalists, too. Bring humour into the conversation, the sillier the better. Kids have a strong sense of fun and laughing and joking together is a great equaliser that strengthens the bonds between you, particularly when you have special “in jokes” just between the two of you.

Children have such fresh and interesting perspectives on things, too, that you can learn a lot by listening to them, which in turn builds their self-confidence and increases their happiness. It will pay off long term when they are teenagers and are more likely to talk to you because there’s a history of easy, open communication.

7. They get time in nature

Nature has restorative powers for people of all ages, but children especially love the feeling of freedom and open space, even when nature is only their own backyards. In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv explored the positive role nature plays in stimulating kids’ imagination and creativity, promoting health and building their resistance to stress and depression. An American study found that time spent outdoors reduced symptoms in children with ADHD.

From the time they are tiny, children crave new experiences — everything for them is a learning opportunity.

Children in developed countries are spending far less time outdoors than previous generations and the reasons why are no mystery. The plethora of indoor activities that have accompanied the growing role of electronic devices in their lives has systematically robbed them of outdoor time. And, sadly, these devices tend to make life easier for parents.

As well as worries about ultraviolet rays, insect bites, germs and even pollution, another reason less time is spent outside home is the modern culture of fear around children’s safety and “stranger danger”. There can be a positive side to this, though: now, when children are allowed to venture beyond their own backyards, it’s most often with one or both parents, a double win because you have quality time together and both get to spend time outdoors.

8. They have time with friends

Research shows that adults who like to spend time with friends are more likely to encourage their children’s friendships. Having friends provides support and promotes mental health and wellbeing at any age, but for kids it’s important for their social and emotional development. Childhood is when we first learn how to make and sustain friendships; we learn how to relate to others, to share, negotiate and deal with conflict.

Children who have friends are more likely to have good self-confidence and tend to perform better at school than those without friends. Parents can help children build happy friendships by creating regular opportunities for them to get together (increasingly known by the Americanism “play dates”), whether it’s by inviting them to your home or to go on an outing with you and your child.

Parents can also teach kids that you have to be a friend to have friends. This may involve encouraging them to share toys or allow their friend to choose the game or activity. We can teach our kids to show generosity and loyalty towards their friends by sticking up for them when bullied or unpopular and forgiving them when they do something that hurts or disappoints.

Parents can also help their children resolve conflicts with friends and siblings, without intervening in a dictatorial way, by teaching them the art of peaceful negotiation and compromise. Fairness is a concept kids grasp naturally and they readily embrace it when they believe that’s the point of negotiation.

9. They get to experience new things

From the time they are tiny, children crave new experiences — everything for them is a learning opportunity. New experiences are essential for brain development; they enable kids to learn one of the most important lessons of early life: learning how to learn, how to explore their world and master what they find. Mastery over something new brings a sense of achievement, which is a joyous feeling for a child.

When a kid with a room full of toys, electronic gadgets and a child-friendly Garden says, “I’m bored — there’s nothing to do here”, adults understandably can’t believe what they’re hearing. But what the child really means is there’s nothing new to do. You can address this in a few ways: provide a new experience or activity to master, or teach them how to be where they are and use what they have with more imagination and creativity.

Children learn more by active engagement than by passive play or entertainment, so new and different experiences benefit them more than material things. Giving them new experiences need not necessarily involve elaborate and expensive plans for a day at The Aquarium (though this is a marvellous experience) but can simply be a different approach to going for a walk, such as theming it with spotting things in nature or consciously observing breath and movement and discussing this.

10. They have happy parents

Children are naturally happy and optimistic when their world is running smoothly, but happiness, joy and optimism are reinforced by the important adults in their world. If parents are unhappy in their relationship and often fighting, or are stressed and worried a lot of the time, children feel it and may start to mimic some of the behaviours modelled by the adults.

It’s from parents that offspring learn how to build happy, respectful relationships with others, including siblings, and it’s very much a “do as I do” kind of teaching. “Do as I say” just doesn’t cut it without the example. When parents bicker and fight, that’s how their children will start to behave towards siblings and others. How can we expect kids to treat each other with respect and tolerance if they see the people they love most doing the opposite?

Humans are social animals, tribal by nature; it’s obvious even in modern life, for example in the way we support our football teams or political parties. A sense of belonging is important to our own identities. These days, we mostly live in nuclear families, but we can create a feeling of community within the family by eating dinner together, playing games that all members can participate in and going on special outings as a family.

Love without borders

We all know love is the number one prerequisite for children’s happiness, but it has to be unconditional. Kids continually make mistakes and repeat them because they act on impulse, living in the moment as they do. When you need to reprimand them, it’s critical that you don’t make them feel you dish out love according to how well they behave or how they perform at school.

  • Choose to parent from love, not anger. Tell them that what they did or said disappointed you because you love them so much.
  • Never withhold love — think of love more as an action than a feeling, one that needs daily practice. Then it’s easier to act with love no matter how angry or frustrated you feel.
  • Lighten up. Did you never do the wrong thing as a child? Have you made mistakes as a parent? Were your own parents less than perfect? Then forgive all of you, including you and especially your child.

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.

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