What would you say if your child asked you whether you’re happy?
Clinical psychologist Coren Kajioka, Psy. D. says his response to his 11-year-old son would be nuanced. “Yeah I feel happy. And I feel sad. I feel upset at times. I feel scared at times. I feel disappointed. Sometimes I feel helpless. Sometimes I feel excited,” he says. “Anything goes and that's OK because we feel what we feel. It's the most liberating thing to teach your child that all your feelings are OK to feel.”
What makes the question so complicated is the subjective and ever-changing nature of happiness. Ask five people what happiness looks like and you’ll get five different answers. Ask again in six months and you may get five more. It makes talking to kids about happiness and modeling it for them complicated.
Find your values
Having strong shared values is the foundation of happy families. Kajioka suggests shifting your focus to what you have rather than what’s missing in your life. Identifying the people and experiences we appreciate helps us reframe the way we see our lives and fill them with more of what makes us happy. Practicing gratitude teaches kids that there are moments to celebrate even when things are tough.
When it comes to talking about core values, Kajioka recommends discussing what you think is important with your kids. Focus on fostering intangible values rather than material possessions. What are some things you value as a family? These conversations help children learn self-inquiry and build a sense of identity.
“I work with a lot of adults who come to me feeling depressed, feeling this sense of anxiety and having existential crises because they don't know who they are,” says Kajioka. “They’re lost but it's only because there hasn't been that foundation from a very young age. It's because they never really communicated those things with their parents.”
Once your child finds something they enjoy, Kajioka says to fully immerse yourself in it. When his son was younger, he wanted to be a firefighter. Kajioka spent time learning about the job and after work he set up obstacle courses his son could run through wearing his firefighter Halloween costume. Families who share even simple experiences like reading before bed or doing a puzzle together create positive lasting memories. “Some would say they're old fashioned, but I don't think so,” says Kajioka. “I think they're timeless.”
In difficult times, it’s important to acknowledge and validate kids’ feelings. Don’t shy away from talking about difficult emotions like sadness and anger. “As parents, we always try to be strong for our kids and that's a wonderful thing. But I wouldn't want a child to believe that they always have to have their stuff together because it's unrealistic. I encourage parents to tell their kids, especially during this time, that they're worried too,’ says Kajioka. “There's nothing wrong with being afraid. There's nothing wrong with being sad. Because then we can face those emotions, face those fears, and learn skills to manage it better.”