By Beth Tyson, MA - Childhood Trauma Consultant
Every time I see an email headline with "Happy New Year!" from the newsletters I subscribe to it falls flat. Who is truly happy after what has transpired over the last year? "Happy New Year" seems like a tall order right now, and I think it's beneficial to accept and acknowledge that reality rather than live in denial. As a mom I am tired of putting on the charade that life is always happy, and I think we do our children a disservice by pretending everything is peachy when it's not.
"When we are inauthentic or dishonest with children they don't doubt the adults, they doubt themselves."
Don't get me wrong, I said "Happy New Year" to multiple people over the last week, but every time I said it something felt off. Did you feel that way too? I realize it is a courteous thing to say, and I am not judging anyone who says it, but I do want to offer my thoughts about what happiness looks like in 2022 after reflecting on the phrase this morning.
Yes, we had lots of happy moments in 2021, and I know we will have more in 2022, that's how life works in my opinion. It's about 50% comfortable and 50% uncomfortable regardless of our circumstances, but do I believe a blanket statement like "Happy New Year" is fitting for me to say right now? No. I feel like we have way too much to worry about and a lot of work to do before people will feel safe enough to resonate with a phrase like Happy New Year.
I am sorry if that is depressing or not what you want to hear, but denying it just doesn't feel right to me in my bones.
"When we live in denial and invalidate the truth of our feelings for ourselves and our children, we lose trust and credibility and create shame. Children feel the cognitive dissonance between what we say and how we feel."
I recently read a quote that said, "to be an adult in 2022 is to be a little bit sad all the time," and it struck me as so true. It seems like wishing you a Happy New Year would be just more of the same fake bullsh*t, so instead, I'm going to say:
"I wish you a gentle new year." "I wish you a safe new year." "I wish you a stable new year."
Happy seems way too big of a leap to me right now, and that's ok. We need to share this type of authenticity with children as well. If adults expect children to be happy when their world is in flux, it creates mental confusion and shame for their uncomfortable feelings. In the new year, I encourage you to acknowledge to your family that it's not about trying to be happy right now, it's about creating moments of safety, acceptance, and calm. And what is happiness anyway?
I always thought "happy" was a destination I was going to reach until the pandemic happened and now I realize I was confusing happy with intense moments of awe and exhilaration that were never meant to be sustainable over time. I define happiness differently now, and the pressure I've always felt to be happy has receded. What is happiness in a pandemic world? To me, it's a peaceful mind, feeling safe in my everyday life, and being connected with people I trust.
What if we taught our children that constant happiness isn't the goal in life? What if we made the goal more realistic by teaching them that life is often painful, and it's completely normal and expected to feel anxious and sad in the world we live in? I do understand how unnatural this idea feels, I am a mom. It seems counterintuitive and hard to accept that we brought children into a life that will cause them pain, but in the long run, acknowledging these truths normalizes fear, distress, and sadness which reduces unnecessary suffering for our children.
Steps to Redefine Happiness for Children
If a child is experiencing distressing emotions sit with their pain and walk them through it instead of distracting or trying to stop their emotions. Being the fixer never works. Just like adults, a child's deepest need is to be heard, seen and felt. So skip the distractions and the "everything is fine" talk, and instead, allow them to feel their feelings. This time together will be even more effective if you are able to share a time you felt uncomfortable emotions too. Explain that life is sometimes uncertain and we do not always have the answers we need, but you will get through it together.
Instead of focusing on happiness only when they reach the high points in life like winning or game or taking a trip to an amusement park, acknowledge some of the mundane moments in life when they are peaceful and content as the definition of happy. If you see your child calmly focused and engaged on something they enjoy, say "you look happy right now, I can tell you are enjoying yourself by the way your face is relaxed and your body is content."
Teach your children that life is a mixture of comfortable and uncomfortable emotions and nobody expects them to be happy all the time. You might think they know this intuitively but they don't because adults often don't give children the opportunity to feel the full range of human emotions. Life isn't like a TV sitcom, being human is hard and we don't always have a happy ending. Children need to learn this truth in micro bits over time so that they are prepared when life is challenging later on.
Allow them to experience age-appropriate challenges, disappointments and failures. Children need to learn how to fall down in small ways so they can pick themselves back up again in bigger ways later on in life. Failure is not something we should avoid. Failing means we are trying something new, and when we fail we learn. I believe failing is the fastest path to growth, and we need to get comfortable with failing over and over again if we want to achieve success. I give my daughter a high- five every time she tries something new and doesn't get it right. She LOVES it! Try it out and see how it works for your kids.
Redefining happiness for our children can take the pressure off of them to be happy all the time, and in doing so they will experience more moments of peace overall, not less.
If you would like to learn more about increasing the emotional well-being of children and families, please join us in the private Facebook group, Emotiminds. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic over there!
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Beth Tyson, MA is a childhood trauma consultant, author, public speaker, and child welfare advocate. She has several years of experience as a mental health clinician and spent the last 10 years studying ACEs and developmental trauma. Beth transitioned out of her role as a family therapist to reach a wider audience with her trauma-informed care training and mental health education for adults. She believes that when we adequately educate parents, teachers, and children about mental health we will break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.