All too frequently we come across articles on the internet selling the antidote to raising happy children, as if happiness was ours to pass on or even create.
Happiness is of course an attractive prospect. It is pleasant and in today’s world, it appears to have become somewhat of an ambition. Albeit, happiness is a state, a feeling, not a character trait. It cannot be possessed or offered, it may only be felt, experienced. In the same manner that all other feelings (like sadness) are, in a transient state. We must experience all emotions. They serve a purpose, keep us safe from harm and help draw us nearer to what is helpful to our evolution and survival. What can be unhelpful is experiencing too much of any one emotion, even if this were to be happiness. So it is balance, rather than happiness that we must seek.
Achieving emotional balance isn’t done through routines, boundaries and fun activities, or even unstructured play, like such articles would have us believe. It is the quality of our attachment with our children and the subliminal messages, passed in our every day interactions, that will truly impact their emotional development. It is within this realm that the child’s “sense of self” forms. A sense that will come to dictate how they function in later life-defining what and how they feel for the world around them.
The “Sense of self” is a theory, authored by the Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. A system, which forms the essence of our psychological being. Comprising the sensations, feelings, thoughts and attitudes which define our subjective experience of life; this sense of self is (as described by Kahn, 1991) constituted by three components:
Mirroring-Firstly, children need to be shown by one or both parents that they are special, wonderful and that it is a pleasure to be around them. Being valued by the caregiver will aid the development of a healthy self esteem and root the belief that they can be loved for who they are, because who they are is enough.
Idealization-Secondly, a child must observe a calm, powerful parent that they can rely on for safety, security and freedom. Children need to see this so that they may internalise it into their own values and ambitions and call upon it in times of need, e.g. to sooth themselves in times of distress.
Merging-Thirdly, a child should know they are born into a world that they are not too different from. Believing they share important characteristics with one or both caregivers to develops a sense of belonging, of communal status. This will also assure assure in the long run the child will long for and develop other affirming relationships.
So you see, optimal emotional development isn’t so much about what we do or put in place for our children, but much more about how we, as caregivers are and behave toward and around them.
To aid the development of emotional balance, we must be mindful of the important messages our interactions convey, and willing to accept that all emotions are ok to be felt and no emotion is wrong.