When Eric Wilson was a kid, he was taught to put a good face on things. “Always smile,” he recalls his parents saying. The implied message? If you’re not happy there’s something wrong with you and you don’t want other people to find out. Needless to say, this led to emotional challenges throughout life.
Now several decades and a daughter later, Wilson, author of the 2009 book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy teaches his teenage daughter to identify, talk about, and overcome challenges rather than performing happiness.
“It’s far easier said than done,” he says. “I can’t stand seeing my daughter upset for one minute. I want to make it better.”
It’s natural to want to alleviate children’s pain and to provide immediate assistance when struggles arise, but short-term and long-term happiness may be at odds. In an attempt to keep children happy now, many parents may be failing to help children develop the skills to pursue happiness for the rest of their lives. Parents’ desire to see their kids happy, it turns out, can stand in the way of their obligation to raise resilient adults capable of facing hardship and seeking out joy.
Put differently, the happiness of children may be overrated compared to the happiness of adults. Those are not mutually exclusive, the prioritization of childhood has potentially deleterious effects. And research bears this out.
Unfortunately, that research is released into a cultural environment in which children’s happiness is prized above all else. Witness, for example, Time, which is ostensibly a news organization, providing parents with a 10-step checklist for raising happy kids after tying childhood happiness with success during adulthood.
“The whole self-help industry says that the proper state of being is happiness,” says Wilson, who speaks candidly about his own experience with clinical depression. “There’s this either/or logic: You’re either there or you suck.”
But that’s not how emotions really work. If you want to raise a child who’s happy in the long run, neuroscientists and psychologists argue that stepping back and letting a child face their problems prepares them to live happy lives down the road. After all, a 2010 Princeton University study published in the journal PNAS found that living a cushy life had little to do with emotional well-being.
“Kids really need to experience distress and unhappiness and grief in order to build resilience,” says Christine Conelea, a psychiatrist specializing in child mental health at University of Minnesota. “By actually doing that thing that’s hard, that’s what builds the ability to be brave and happy in the long term.”
Given that allowing space for discontent is part of ensuring long-term happiness, parents need to take a strategic approach to monitoring and ensuring their children’s happiness rather than exhibiting some of the knee-jerk responses that have become common.
Many of the strategies that clinicians use to determine when sadness is destructive and when it isn’t are similar to strategies they use to help parents foster healthy development in general, explains Stony Brook University clinical psychology professor Jessica Schleider.
Schleider says many parents do what’s called accommodating: avoiding at all costs anything that makes their kids anxious. In her clinical work, Schleider has seen parents of kids with obsessive-compulsive disorders actually join in their kid’s rituals. From the parent’s perspective, they’re preventing a meltdown and, even if it takes an hour, getting the kid to bed. But accommodating short-term happiness in this way only reinforces the problem.
“They’re avoiding a tantrum, but making the problem worse over time,” Schleider says. “Accommodation increases anxiety in children. Reducing accommodation through treatment can reduce anxiety disorders in offspring.”
So how do parents take that step back and focus on long-term happiness — healthy development — instead of trying to prevent all forms of sadness? A lot of it comes down to encouraging social behavior and shared experiences, explains NYU developmental psychologist Caitlin Canfield. She studies how stress-linked hormones like cortisol relate to child-rearing.
When you’re stressed, your brain releases a hormone called cortisol into your body. Cortisol prepares your body to deal with a perceived threat or stressful situation by raising blood pressure and giving you a boost of energy. But with too much stress, the ongoing cortisol dosage essentially keeps your body on high alert, potentially causing medical issues like anxiety or depression. This is why stress, more than unhappiness, might represent a clear and present danger for children.
“When we looked at kids in early elementary school who reported high chronic stress that was reflected in their cortisol levels,” says Canfield. “Those kids whose parents reported doing more reading, talking, teaching, and playing also reported that their kids had fewer mental health symptoms.”
Canfield’s work at the hormonal, biological level reached conclusions similar to those of the other psychologists. Moderate levels of stress hormones can actually be beneficial — one would benefit from feeling a bit anxious before giving a speech, she explains.
But finding the right balance between stress and misery, between distractions and valuable experiences can be difficult.
“A lot of parents get stuck in the moment to moment — it’s really hard to tolerate the child’s distress,” says Conelea. “A lot of work comes from helping parents handle their own distress from seeing the child’s distress.”
It also comes down to helping kids learn important lessons early on.
Laura Zimmermann, a childhood development expert who examines the impact and effectiveness of educational programs and digital media at SRI International says that the highest-quality activities and media for children are engaging, meaningful, and encourage social behaviors and active learning. Games or media that lack those qualities may make a kid happy in the moment, but they’re likely to serve more as a distraction.
“When kids are having trouble regulating their emotions, you can take time to stop and talk to them about what’s bothering them,” says Zimmermann. “But sometimes, these high-quality problem-solving conversations are not possible because parents are busy, so something may be introduced as a distractor. A lot of people may say, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t give their child an iPad,’ but sometimes it’s the best thing to do to alleviate stressful situations in the moment.”
“It’s really good for kids to be in situations that are challenging but manageable,” says Conelea. “Challenging but manageable is the space where we improve and we grow and we learn. Those kinds of healthy amounts of challenge are important for developing long-term psychological health.”
This is, of course, not to say that parents shouldn’t be alert and sensitive to the feelings of sadness their kids have. Today’s kids, teens, and young adults experience depression and anxiety — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4.4 million Americans between the ages of 2 and 17 have diagnosed anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health found that nearly 7,000 Americans younger than 25 died by suicide in 2017 alone. There’s a difference between letting kids learn from everyday struggles and ignoring problems that need addressing.
Unfortunately, this puts parents in the position of gauging the seriousness of their children’s troubles, which would be hard even if their judgment wasn’t compromised by the boundless empathy they likely feel for their children. Wilson argues depression ought to be treated however necessary, but kids should learn to embrace everyday sorrow.
All that said, it’s also important that parents understand that they can only help so much. A massive literature review by scientists at the Netherlands’ VU University that was published in Nature Genetics in 2015 reviewed some 2,748 twin correlation studies conducted over 50 years on 14,558,903 pairs of twins and found that nearly every character trait is at least partially linked to genetics. That includes things like a child’s overall disposition or propensity for melancholy. And it’s all fine as long as parents are willing to engage with the idea that sadness is not, in and off itself, without virtue. It can provide an emotional forum for developing resilience.
“I think our culture needs to be more patient with sorrow, with sadness, with grief. I think there’s a real impatience to get better quickly,” he says. “There aren’t spaces in our culture for that.”
“Genuinely, the vast majority of parents are doing their very best in very difficult situations and deserve all the empathy in the world,” says Schleider.