Do Happy Parents Raise Healthier Kids?

There is plenty of evidence that a healthy, happy parent is more likely to create a healthy, happy child. For a great review of what we know and why happy parents raise happy kids, take a look at Ann Douglas’ new book Happy Parents Happy Kids. Douglas begins by raising alarms about how much we obsess about our children. We are endlessly stressed shaping the world around our children in a vain attempt to give them unfettered success. Ironically, all this stress is not doing our kids any good and is definitely harming our mental and physical health as parents.

A better strategy would be to be happy. Relax and look after ourselves a little more. A little benign neglect could give our kids the edge we want them to have by placing in their life a role model for work-life balance and reasonable expectations. After all, as a recent study of adolescents by Deb Sibnath and her international group of colleagues showed, the kind of home a child is raised in really does affect a child’s emotional health. The most damaging homes are those characterized by:

1. A difficult home environment where parents are often arguing.

2. Parents who don’t share problems with each other or collaborate on finding solutions.

3. A home lacking in parental warmth.

4. A home where children experience excessive controlling behavior by a parent, especially the constant push to achieve unrealistic academic results.

5. A home where parents show troubling personality traits like short-temperateness.

All of these home environments have been found to be significantly associated with children’s anxiety, poor emotional adjustment, and lower self-confidence.

This idea about creating a child’s resilience by changing a child’s world is what I argue in Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. It works like this. The child is nested inside the parental system, which is there to keep the child safe. And of course, the child is composed of subsystems, like a nervous system that reacts to stress and a psychological system (the child’s cognitions and feelings) which also depend on how well the child’s caregivers do their job. Likewise, the parental system is itself part of larger social systems. A religious community. An economic system. A health care system. A culture.

My research is revealing how the resilience of any one of these systems affects the other systems. For example, a child who is raised by loving, emotionally secure parents inside a community that promotes tolerance (and is therefore long-term, more resilient because it is flexible), will likely be a child who has a smaller chance of being neurologically traumatized. Children who have been traumatized, or never taught by their caregivers to be tolerant of others (e.g., if parents make racist comments in the home), are likely to be less resilient if we consider resilience a set of qualities and opportunities that make it easier for us to adapt during a crisis.

No surprise, then, that when parents get their needs met, they are better able to meet the needs of their kids. A well-known study by Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla, for example, found that while it is important that parents (especially, it seems, mothers) find satisfaction in their role as parents, it is just as important to their mental health and effectiveness as a parent that they experience really good social support. That needn’t come from a spouse, but it has to come from somewhere: extended family, religious community, friends, colleagues at work, etc. Even children themselves, it seems, can offer parents support, creating a virtuous cycle by helping a parent when help is needed, which in turn creates a happier calmer parent who is then more available to the child emotionally and physically.

In other words, the more personally fulfilled, and emotionally supported, a parent feels, the better that parent is at parenting, and the better her child’s psychological and social development.

That is a profoundly important point. Endless self-sacrifice and too few opportunities to emotionally recharge (the classic case of work-life imbalance and snow-plow parenting by parents who sacrifice everything for their kids) is not going to give children the best environment in which to thrive.

How to Help Ourselves Thrive as Parents (And Help Our Kids Too)

The good news is that there are things we can do as a parent to help ourselves, and in the end, help our kids live in a household that is best for them. There are plenty of parenting programs you can join, and lots of great books like Douglas’. A brief list of some of the most effective strategies includes:

1. Learn about child development. A parent who feels empowered in her (or his) role as a parent is going to feel more confident and much calmer during a crisis, whether that is your two-year-old who won’t sleep through the night or your 12-year old who comes home with a tattoo.

2. Find a group of other parents you can turn to for advice. That might be your extended family, or an online community, or it could be the parents you meet when you and your child are at the playground. Be open about your struggles and others will be open about theirs.

3. Remember why you are a parent in the first place. Hopefully, it was a choice, which means on some level parenting is a calling, a personal vocation, a life purpose. People who understand the importance of their role seem to have a greater tolerance for stress.

4. If you work outside the home, do what you can to establish work-life balance. There is no one perfect formula for how much ‘me-time’ a parent should take. It will change as a child gets older and work demands change. The trick is to change the world around you just enough to get some of your needs met. That could be a brief exercise routine, or ten minutes a day before you get to work in the morning to have a cup of coffee and catch your breath after the morning mayhem of getting kids to a sitter or daycare. Maybe it is choosing a holiday that is as good for you as it is for the children (and not just another period of heavy demands on your time, leaving you more stressed than when you left home). The best advice I ever got as a parent was that I didn’t have to be my child’s playmate in addition to caregiver, cook, and chauffeur.

There are likely plenty of other things we as parents can do to modulate our stress and improve our wellbeing. Each strategy that improves the world around our children is also improving the chances our children will have the resources they need to cope with their own stress. Be good to yourself, for the sake of your kids.


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