Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and developing feelings of happiness is a great way to do it.
Happiness, or feeling a sense of joy or well-being, comes through our connection with others and a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives.1 One-year-olds rely heavily on your guidance and reassurance as they start to explore their world. Many of your child’s joyful and happy experiences will occur through their loving interactions with you. Happiness also comes when children feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In the earliest years, this comes through the play and learning that is so critical to your child’s development. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration.
Yet, we all face challenges. Feeling joy all of the time is not likely and not beneficial. Doing so would limit your child’s experiences with a wide range of important feelings that play a role in their development. Rather than focusing on helping your child to be happy in every moment, helping them to build healthy relationships with others and engage in activities and play that feel meaningful can grow happiness.
Further, growing happiness in children begins with parents who recognize and attend to their own needs for self-care like eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, connecting with friends, and engaging in enjoyable activities. It may feel like you rarely have time to care for yourself because you are focused on caring for your child. But, not taking time for yourself can get in the way of the joy and connection that you feel with your child. Even small amounts of time (like taking a walk or calling a friend) can make a big difference for you and your child.
The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you develop happiness and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your child’s connections with you and others and their ability to engage in meaningful learning and play are essential to developing lifelong happiness. Today, in the short term, growing happiness can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- a sense of belonging as a member of your family; and
- a sense of optimism and wellbeing.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child grow happiness
- develops a sense of fulfillment;
- strengthens their immune system and physical health;
- builds skills that foster resilience;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child develop feelings of joy and connection to one another. It also lays the foundation for important life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
One-year-olds are starting to verbalize their needs by babbling, crying, and starting to use single words. Despite your child’s emerging ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that promote happiness and let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Consider how your child reacts when they are happy or excited. How do they show you? Children at this age clap their hands, imitate others, smile, squeal, and laugh when they are happy or excited.
- Consider how your child reacts when they are scared. How do they show you? Children at this age are more aware of their surroundings, which can make them afraid of new things or sounds. They may cry, withdraw, or hide.
- Consider how your child reacts when they are upset, angry, or frustrated.
- How do they show you? Children at this age may cry, yell, hit, bite, or throw things. They can still be soothed by cuddling and rocking and are learning to self-soothe when upset.
- If a child is crying, offer to hold them or provide comfort items like a favorite teddy bear or a blanket. Do not attempt to talk anything through when a child is highly upset. Focus on calming down first.
- If a child hits or bites in anger or frustration, stop and say, “Ouch. That hurts my arm, and it makes me feel sad” or “I see you are frustrated.”
- Each time your child expresses any big feeling, be sure and name it. “You have a smile on your face. You seem happy.” This builds their feelings vocabulary and adds to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings. This includes describing and naming the joy they may feel when they have fun with you, and the pride they feel when they are able to do something for the first time. Pointing out the many ways they can experience happiness will help them notice it and know what experiences bring them joy.
- When reading books, look at the images of people and point out what you notice about the characters feelings. “I think that character is feeling happy because he likes to play with his friends? Does playing with your friends make you feel happy, too?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help grow your child’s happiness. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.2
- 12-18-month-olds respond to their name and may use 5 to 10 words. They are starting to combine words with gestures and are starting to follow simple directions and remember recent events and actions. They may feel uneasy when separated from their loved ones.
- 12-18-month-olds are beginning to walk independently, can stack blocks, and point to objects of interest.
- 18-24-month-olds can understand 10 times more than they can speak, are starting to respond to questions, can point to familiar objects and people in pictures, and are starting to follow two-step directions. They are also starting to want to try things on their own.
- 18-24-month-olds are becoming able to throw and attempt to catch a ball without losing their balance, enjoy playing with new toys in varying ways, and usually participate in getting dressed without becoming upset.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book with faces to help your child learn to identify different feelings. Point out how you can tell what each face is feeling and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the story and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and emotions that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- Replay moments that made your child feel joy during pretend play. “Do you remember how much fun it was to play hide-and-seek yesterday? Do you want to play again?”
- Make your thinking and feelings explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving. “We worked hard to build that block tower. It was fun! It made me smile, like this.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “Playing together with toys makes me feel so happy. I want to give you a big hug.”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Develop Happiness, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for you and your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will build relationships with others and engage in meaningful play that will bring you both joy and happiness. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy (a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully). This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
To develop happiness, it is important to practice noticing feelings, engaging in just-right-sized challenges, noticing the trusted adults that are always there to help, and noticing the child’s strengths that can help them feel joy.
- Provide opportunities for your child to do things that are more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond what they are comfortable with so they can experience working hard and mastering a new skill. This may be a challenging social situation like waving hello to a neighbor who they felt too shy to wave to in the past.
- Create regular routines that build your child’s relationships with others. Even a daily walk to get the mail with a parent can become a cherished routine that is comforting, connecting, and joyful.
- Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of happiness so that they become part of your child’s stories and memories. This is a good way to relive special moments and remind your child about the roles that family members and friends have played in their happiness.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s skills to notice what makes them feel happy. You are helping them to notice other children may have different reactions to the same situations and are teaching them that all feelings are important and welcome. You are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to begin to handle their feelings independently.
Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support reinforces your parent-child relationship and helps your child know you are there to support them when they experience any feeling. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you were able to put your clothes into the basket like we practiced. We were both smiling. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is not feeling particularly happy, let them know that it is ok to not feel happy sometimes, and that they are likely to feel happy again sometime soon. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “We thought this would be fun, but it is ok if you don’t like it.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when they are doing something that brings them joy. You can offer reflections like: “You smiled a lot while we played with the bucket of water in the backyard. It seemed like you felt happy.”
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your child. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence. You can recognize and celebrate your child with the following actions.
- Smile at your child.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your child.
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. If your child had more fun at the park because they took a nap beforehand, help them notice that connection so they can understand that being rested will make it easier to have fun. “I notice you have a lot more energy to play and have fun since we took a nap earlier.”
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
This year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.