Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 2-year-old 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 Two-year-olds are building their skills through loving interactions with you, other family members, and friends. Many of your child’s joyful and happy experiences will occur within these important relationships. 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 (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.
Five Steps for Growing Happiness
This five-step process helps you and your child develop feelings of joy and connection to one another. It also builds 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.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds may use short phrases to communicate and are adding new words to their vocabulary regularly, but they do not yet know how to name their big feelings. Frustrations with not being understood may result in them losing control more frequently. Despite your child’s new 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.
- Each time there is an opportunity, share how you are feeling and ask your child how they feel: “I am getting sleepy; are you feeling sleepy?” Two-year-olds do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are dealing with any big feeling. They will need your support to be successful.
- For example, if your child is with others who are all feeling very happy at a family birthday party, help them notice their own feelings and those of others. You might even name what expressions and body language you notice. For example, “I notice a lot of children running and smiling. Many of them are singing and waving balloons, too. Do you think they feel happy?”
- You can also point out when your child is feeling differently from other children, and let them know that is ok. “I notice that you are staying away from the balloons and standing in one place. Your eyebrows are squeezed together like this. I do not think that you are feeling happy right now. How are you feeling?”
- When reading books, look at the images of people and talk about what you notice about their feelings. Point out the different ways that people may feel happiness. Ask, “I think drawing makes that person feel happy. Does drawing make you feel happy too?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe their feelings or how others are feeling, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas too.
- “How did you feel when you saw the balloons at the party?”
- “I noticed some children were very excited about the balloons.”
- “I noticed other children stepped away from the balloons and got closer to their parents.”
- “Are you feeling nervous?”
- “How do you feel now?”
- “Is there anything we can do to remember what made you feel happy at the party?”
- Each time your child expresses any big feeling, be sure and name it. “You seemed really happy when you were listening to the music. You had a smile on your face. Were you feeling 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.
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
- Two-year-olds are starting to see themselves as their own unique, individual person. They are just beginning to understand that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and that someone else could have different thoughts and feelings. This is key for beginning to empathize with a thought or feeling that is different from their own, such as, “Why is my friend happy?”
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
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, 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 pretend we were animals in the forest yesterday? Do you want to play that 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 so hard to make cookies together today. It was fun! It made me smile, like this.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “Singing with you makes me feel so happy. I want to give you a big hug.”
- Help your child see that feelings will change and all emotions are important and welcome. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “I don’t like that,” you may respond with:
- “Sometimes we don’t like something now, and that is okay. But we might like it later.”
- “Do you remember last time when you did not like something? You took a deep breath and tried it, and it was ok.”
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.
- 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 playing with a new friend or trying a new experience.
- Create regular routines that build your child’s relationships with others. Even a daily walk around the block 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 that 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 to 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 liked singing songs at the library storytime today. You were smiling when you sang. 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 all talked together at the dinner table. It seemed like you felt happy.”
- “I remember last time when we were at the park you did not like being on the swings. This time, you went on the swings with your friend and had fun.”
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem, confidence, and joy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships – a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You shared your toy with your friend. That’s great!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you go down the slide by yourself, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you went down the slide by yourself. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. 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.
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.