“The best predictors of happiness are internal, not external,” says Hallowell, who stresses the importance of helping kids develop a set of inner tools they can rely on throughout life.
Learn to read the signs
Your toddler is probably very good at showing you when something makes him happy or sad. His face lights up in a huge smile when you come home, or he sobs uncontrollably when he can’t find his beloved blankie. But you may still wonder if, overall, he’s content. The signs are usually obvious: A happy child smiles, plays, exhibits curiosity, shows interest in other children, and doesn’t need constant stimulation. Conversely, says Hallowell, the signs of an unhappy child are clear: The child “is withdrawn, quiet, not eating very much, doesn’t spontaneously get involved with other children, doesn’t play, doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t laugh and smile, and has very spare speech.”
If you have a naturally shy or introverted child who doesn’t laugh or interact a lot, that doesn’t mean he’s unhappy. Shyness is not the same as sadness, but you’ll have to work harder to read his signs. Hallowell says to be aware of any major changes in his behavior — becoming more isolated or fearful — that might suggest he’s having problems you should pay attention to.
Paul C. Holinger, professor of psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, has identified nine inborn “signals” that babies use to communicate their feelings. You can recognize these signals in your toddler also. Two of the signals,”interest” and “enjoyment,” are positive feelings, while the negative signals, especially “distress,” “anger,” and “fear,” add up to an unhappy child.
Most parents recognize that a fearful, easily upset child isn’t a happy camper, but Holinger finds that many parents don’t recognize that an angry child is usually expressing sadness. No matter the age, “anger is simply excessive distress,” says Holinger. When your child hits his brother or throws his toys, it means he’s distressed beyond his ability to deal with it.
Your toddler probably has his own ways of showing you when he’s going through a hard time. Some kids may withdraw, some may throw tantrums, and still others may become clingy. As you get to know your own child’s temperament, you’ll become better at learning the signs that something’s not right in his world. For more insights into your child’s natural temperament, check out our article, “Are children born happy?”.
Make room for fun
Although nonstop entertainment and ice cream for dinner may seem like every child’s dream, what actually makes your toddler happiest is much simpler: you. And that’s the first key to creating a happy child says Hallowell. “Connect with them, play with them,” he advises. “If you’re having fun with them, they’re having fun. If you create what I call a ‘connected childhood,’ that is by far the best step to guarantee your child will be happy.”
Play creates joy, but play is also how your child develops skills essential to future happiness. Unstructured play allows her to discover what she loves to do — build towers out of blocks, play hospital with her stuffed animals — which can point her toward a career that will seem like a lifetime of play. Play doesn’t mean music classes, organized sports, and other structured, “enriching” activities. Play is when children invent, create, and daydream.
Help them develop their talents
Hallowell’s prescription for creating lifelong happiness includes a surprising twist: Happy people are often those who have mastered a skill. For example, when your toddler practices throwing a ball to you, he learns from his mistakes, he learns persistence and discipline, and then he experiences the joy of succeeding due to his own efforts.
He also reaps the reward of gaining recognition from others for his accomplishment. Most important, he discovers he has some control over his life: If he tries to do something, he has the satisfaction of finding that, with persistence, he can eventually do it. Research shows that this feeling of control through mastery is an important factor in determining adult happiness.
Hallowell warns that children, like adults, need to follow their own interests, or there’ll be no joy in their successes. Rebecca Marks , a mother of two from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, says that her 3-year-old son Zachary’s number one interest is construction. “He loves to build things and to help his dad build special projects. It makes him feel good about himself. We try to help him focus on what he has a natural talent for, where we can tell he’s really having fun.”
Healthy bodies equal happy children
Lots of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are important to everyone’s well-being, especially children’s. Toddlers are natural exercisers: Giving your child plenty of time to run around outside will help her with her moods. And pay attention to your child’s need for structure: While some children are very easygoing, most toddlers thrive and are happier with a set schedule that lets them know what’s coming.
You might also want to pay attention to any connection between your child’s mood and particular foods. Some parents find that while sugar can give their child an energy boost, it can also create mood swings or aggressive behavior. Food allergies and sensitivities may also play a role in your child’s behavior and mood.
Let them struggle with problems
But, you say, I’m supposed to be creating a happy child! Shouldn’t I swoop down and make everything better? In fact, Carrie Masia-Warner, a child psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-intentioned parents make.
“Parents try to make it better for their child all the time, to make them happy all the time. That’s not realistic. Don’t always jump in and try to fix it,” advises Masia-Warner. “Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope.”
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child’s 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he’ll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.
This doesn’t mean children shouldn’t ask for help if they need it, but your role is to help them find a solution, not provide it for them. Learning to deal with life’s inevitable frustrations and setbacks is critical to your child’s future happiness.
If your child develops a sense of independence and confidence, it can lead to greater self esteem and happiness. One way to help your toddler develop these qualities is to have him practice playing alone for ten to 15 minutes several times a day.
Allow them to be sad or mad
When your child pouts in a corner during a birthday party, your natural reaction may be to push her to join in the fun. But it’s important to allow her to be unhappy. Hallowell is concerned that “some parents worry any time their children suffer a little rejection, they don’t get invited to the birthday party, or they cry because they didn’t get what they wanted.”
Children need to know that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes — it’s simply part of life. And if we try to squelch any unhappiness, we may be sending the message that it’s wrong to feel sad. We need to let them experience their feelings, including sadness.
You can encourage your child to label her feelings and express them verbally. Even if your toddler isn’t talking yet, you can show her pictures of faces and ask her which one is feeling the same way she is. Young children will pick up very quickly on “affect” words such as “happy” or “angry.” When they can put words to their emotions, they gain a whole new capacity to recognize and regulate their feelings.
“It’s very scary for a little kid to feel rage and not understand where it’s coming from,” says Rebecca Marks, mother of two from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. When 14-month-old Madeline acts out or hits, Marks says, “I tell her, ‘I know you’re frustrated or mad.’ That way, Madeline learns to identify her feelings, to name her emotions. Then we can teach her to use her words instead of hitting.”
However, Masia-Warner warns, you shouldn’t overreact to your child’s negative feelings. “It’s normal for kids to become oversensitive or clingy or nervous at times because of something in their environment, but it’s not an unhappiness.”
Be a role model
According to Dora Wang, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and mother of 3-year-old Zoe, research shows that you can pass on your temperament to your children — not necessarily through your genes — but through your own behavior and childrearing style.
For better or worse, children pick up on their parents’ moods. Even young babies imitate their parents’ emotional style, which actually activates specific neural pathways. In other words, when you smile, your child smiles and his brain becomes “wired” for smiling. But be genuine— your child will sense if you’re acting. If you make a point of enjoying small things and saying what you’re grateful for, you’ll be a positive role model for your child.
You can help your child see his glass as half full rather than half empty. For example, if it’s too rainy to go to the playground, point out what a great chance it is to bake cookies. Sharon Cohn of West Orange, New Jersey, tells her kids, “Be happy about what you have instead of being sad about what you don’t have.” A wonderful dinnertime ritual might be for each family member — including your toddler — to say what the best part of the day was.
Peggy O’Leary of Montara, California, finds that when she is highly stressed, her two children react immediately. “They silence themselves, they cower.” One time when O’Leary was feeling low, her son August said “Let’s play tag again, like when you were happy.” It made her realize how sensitive he was to her moods. She now makes an effort to show her children a more positive attitude.
But you don’t have to hide your negative emotions, either. You can show your child you’re sad that you broke your favorite vase. And if you add that it means you can now buy a bigger one, you will be teaching your child that sadness is a part of life as well as showing him how to find the silver linings.
However, if you find yourself constantly stressed out or depressed, it’s important to seek help. “Parents who tend to be depressed are often not good at being consistent with their discipline and providing structure, or at providing consistent praise and having fun with their children. All of this can contribute to emotional problems,” says Masia-Warner.
Teach them to do meaningful things
As your toddler gets older, she can be taught how satisfying it can be to help others. Research shows that people who have meaning in their lives feel less depressed. Cohn says that charity and helping others is a big part of their family life. Even young children can benefit from this lesson.
After learning about Hurricane Katrina, Cohn’s 5-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and her classmates collected school supplies and backpacks to donate to the kids who lost their belongings. Even helping out with simple household chores, such as putting her dirty clothes in the hamper, can help your toddler feel that she is making a contribution.