TEENS

Much research on well-being makes clear that Americans’ typical approaches to the pursuit of happiness are far from helpful to our kids. Sometimes, everything will not be OK, a psychologist says.

It was front and center in a slideshow of other people’s beautiful kitchen renovations: one of those artsy wooden “House Rules” signs. Rule Number 7, showcased in the biggest script of all and sandwiched between “Show compassion” and “Love each other” was this: “BE HAPPY.”

Admittedly, seeing that made me anything but. As a psychologist, I can’t help but wonder: Who in this world has ever gotten happy because someone else told them they have to be?

And worse, what if our culture’s incessant demands to be happy are actually making our kids miserable?

It seems counterintuitive, of course, but to be happy in the long run, we should more fully embrace the times when we’re not.

In a culture bent on being positive, teaching this mindset is like swimming upstream. Our kids absorb the “happy feelings are the most acceptable feelings” message very early on. The smiley-face sticker is the ultimate praise, thinking happy thoughts and turning frowns upside-down make up too many children’s songs to count, and the admonition “don’t cry” has become ubiquitous, whether in our attempts to comfort, or our sharp rebukes when our kids’ emotional displays frustrate us.

But this approach to emotional development neglects the full, complicated range of unhappy feelings that are just as valid a part of human life as happiness is — from sadness to frustration, from anger to fear, from guilt to disappointment, boredom or disgust.

Much research on well-being makes clear that Americans’ typical approaches to the pursuit of happiness is far from helpful to our kids. Anxiety and mental health problems in children and teens have been steadily increasing, even before the massive disruptions of a year that has been the most difficult of many young lives.

In fact, the more we teach our kids to stay positive, at the expense of helping them accept occasional difficult feelings, the less we equip them with tools to manage such feelings when life inevitably gets hard. At worst, it teaches our kids that upsetting feelings are unacceptable and need to be numbed.

We tend to have a similar disdain for negative thoughts. Americans like to believe that our thoughts define us: that we need to control that running commentary, shape it and aggressively avoid the “bad” thoughts that supposedly doom us to unhappiness. But this gives far too much power to our thoughts.

Research into mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy reveals that it’s not negative thoughts that cause depression, anxiety or any other mental rut we’re afraid of. It is when negative thoughts become sticky that we are more prone to those problems.

And here’s the rub: The more we fight with our thoughts, the more we give them the power to stick. Being fixated on having only the “right” kind of thoughts breeds the cognitive rigidity that creates tunnel vision; locks us into unhelpful patterns; increases our risk of rumination; obsessions and compulsions; and decreases our ability to adapt to setbacks.

Moreover, distress intolerance — the fear of discomfort that creates a need to escape from bad moods rather than cope with them more actively — is associated not just with anxiety, but with a higher risk of substance abuse, binge-eating and self-harm.

Our kids are now coming up on a year of painfully disrupted day-to-day life, where everything from play dates to grandparent hugs, field trips, sports teams and birthday gatherings were sacrificed. If they didn’t have unhappy feelings about these losses, frankly, it would be unnatural. What better time to begin teaching our kids that unhappiness has a rightful place in a full and — yes — truly happy life? It is often the difficult emotions that have the most to teach us about ourselves, and that give us the opportunity to find meaning and connect with others.

If you can help your child develop the ability to think about their thoughts and mindfulness, which helps them become a gentle, nonjudgmental observer of their thoughts and feelings, you are giving them psychological tools to help them for a lifetime.

Here are some ways to make the lessons more consistent.

Teach your kids their thoughts don’t define them. Establish that not only is a thought not automatically true, but it’s also not automatically “you.” Encourage labeling distressing thoughts, like “I’m having the thought no one likes me” rather than “no one likes me,” which helps your child separate from them.

Encourage turning anxious thought patterns into characters. A kid with OCD could view their obsessive voice as “Mr. Bossy,” or a child with social anxiety may call their negative self-talk “The Stage-Fright Bully” and decide that it has nothing important to say.

Take the stance that feelings, even big ones, are always OK. Emphasize it’s how we handle emotions that matters most. Teach your children that upsetting moods often pass on their own, but if they don’t, we can grow a toolbox of ways to cope and to manage them.

Teach them that the anger is OK, but we must think through our actions carefully. Every time they fully engage with a feeling and choose functional behavior, they strengthen their emotional intelligence and make it more likely that that feeling won’t impel them toward unhealthy habits in the future.

Enlarge your vocabulary about emotions. Encourage your kids to give voice to their feelings, and put that into practice yourself. Encourage your kids to write or draw their feelings in a journal.

Observe and adjust your own habits of talking about feelings. Pay particular attention to the times you invalidate your child’s emotions or try to force a different internal reaction: “You’re OK,” “Everything’s fine,” “You have nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, choose empathy: “Sounds like that’s really upsetting; let’s think about how we can work through this.”

Talk about true happiness as more than just pleasure or ease. We all want our kids to be happy. But what they absorb about what that means is crucial. By opening them up to the idea of a sense of purpose, finding meaning in their life, or defining the values important to them, they will have a better understanding of how difficult times can cultivate happiness.

Soon, they (and you) will be more open to the true experience of happiness — and whatever else life brings.

Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover The Life You’ve Always Wanted. She is the mother of three.

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