As parents, we innately want to make our children happy. We constantly walk a fine line between enabling and empowering, discipling and disregarding, etc. However, any parent will tell you that all of this easier said than done. Thoughtful and intentional parenting is work, really hard work. It takes another level of connectedness that can barely be explained. Have you ever “felt” the pain of your child? When they hurt, you hurt. You’re elated when they are successful and beyond words when you feel like you’re unable to help them. That’s the level of connectedness that I refer to when I speak of thoughtful parenting.
Temporary Sadness vs. Unhappiness
I’m not talking about my team just lost the game unhappy. I’m referring to the type of unhappiness a child experiences when they feel as if they don’t ever fit in with peers or when they feel like they can never earn good grades regardless of how hard they’ve tried. Watching our child feel lost, empty and downright unhappy, can feel like a punch in the gut.
So, what do we do when our children are unhappy? Well, most of us take a private moment to collect ourselves. And, that’s okay. After a good cry, a glass of wine or whatever is necessary to temporarily take us out of reality in order to bring us back to actually being present in our real life is not only suggested, it’s healthy. Once we are in the mind space to address, and dare I say face, the reality that our baby is unhappy, we can move into a trajectory to help him/her.
5 Steps to Helping Your Unhappy Child
1. Listen. No really. Actively Listen.
Let’s be clear. Regardless of their age, whether or not they’re biologically linked to us, our babies will always be our babies. We tend to try to protect them from whatever we can. However, that need to protect, that momma or poppa bear instinct, may muddle our hearing.
What is your child saying to you? Note that what they are saying may be quite different than what you are actually hearing. Try not to impose your past experiences on what you are hearing. Just take a moment to take in the words. All too often, we add our own “stuff” to what others are saying. This especially holds true when we are listening to the people we feel we know best.
2. Be a cheerleader.
Once you’re clear on their interpretation of the source of their own unhappiness, it’s important to make them feel accepted and understood. Even if you don’t fully understand, fake it for the moment. There will be ample time to fire off the myriad of questions later. Even the most emotionally “intelligent” adults may find it extremely hard to be vulnerable enough to be completely transparent. We’ve all been there. We’re experts of every darn thing and stuttering fools when we’re asked to turn the mirror around, right? So, how hard must it be for our babies to face their hero and admit that they’re unhappy? Talk to them, not at them. Position yourself to be eye level with them as you speak to them. Be cognizant of your body language. Hug them. Assure them that everything will be okay, and it will be, eventually.
3. Check your guilt at the door.
Respectfully, yet simply stated, this is not about you. If we let ourselves get caught up in guilt, we can find a way to make everything bad our fault. At this juncture, we need to focus on figuring out how our kids got to this unhappy place and how we are going to get them into a happy mental space. Once you’ve checked the guilt, you’ll need to honestly evaluate how badly they’re feeling and gain an understanding of how long they’ve felt this way. There’s a major difference between a sad child and a depressed child. Although the term depression is thrown around loosely, clinical depression is serious and can only be diagnosed by a professional mental health expert. If you fear that your child may harm him/herself, seek help immediately. If you believe that your child needs help but is not in immediate danger then you can create a support system for him/her.
4. Find support for them…and you.
One of the first things I learned while studying psychology in grad school was that every good therapist, has a good therapist. If a therapist can seek support then it is okay for families to connect with a support system. Sometimes it will be easier for your child to confide in an aunt or uncle. Surround them with responsible adults that can guide them in your absence. I have three close girlfriends who are more like sisters to me than friends. My 12 and 14 year old daughters have each of their numbers and have permission to contact them at any time with anything they deem appropriate. I know and trust my friends. I’ve observed them closely over the years as they interact with their own children. I’ve learned that they are capable of making sound decisions in their own lives. Therefore, they don’t need to brief me on their intimate conversations with my girls. I am confident that they have their best interests in mind. I also know that they would let me know if my children were in real danger.
At the same time, I have family members and friends that I’ve known my entire life and I wouldn’t entrust them with my favorite pen. Now is not the time to play nice or be unrealistic about the capabilities of our support system. If you don’t have people around you that you can rely on to be a support to you and your children, reach out to the mental health professionals at your child’s school. Each school district has a team of “support staff” that is equipped to deal with a plethora of mental health issues. If the help that is required is beyond their scope of expertise, they should have resources readily available to refer you in the right direction. If you are worried about confidentiality, you may find comfort in knowing that it is their job to keep information that you or your child share completely private. The only exception to this rule is in the case that the child is in danger, might hurt themselves or someone else. I’ve worked on school support teams for a great portion of my career and I can tell you from my own personal experience, there is very little that the support team has not heard. They’re there to help and they’re a readily available resource. If you prefer to gain support outside of school, there are also organizations that have support groups in place but you need to be sure that they are reputable organizations. This leads me to #5…
5. Seek professional help.
It is okay to get professional help. A child in need of therapy is not a reflection of poor parenting. When seeking professional help, it’s important to get a referral from a good source. A good source is someone who is aware of what is needed to help your child because they have professional training and experience working with children having similar issues. Your pediatrician is a great place to start. They can refer you to specialists and/or support groups to help your entire family manage the mental wellness of your child.
I’ll say it again, parenting ain’t easy. Not only are we balancing our own chaotic lives, we’re trying to cultivate happy and well-adjusted children. So, when our children are experiencing extended periods unhappiness, it’s important that we actively listen, encourage, evaluate, support and seek help.
Here are some national resources available to help children in crisis:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273- TALK (8255)
- National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
- Safe Place (for teens in crisis): 1-888-290-7233