Most parents would agree that raising happy children is often easier said than done. Are you praising them too much or too little? Are you disciplining them enough? Teaching them the right skills?
Trying to find the “right” answer can be exhausting, but Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of “The Happy Kid Handbook,” says there is no “right” answer because every child is different.
“The biggest thing that you can do is figure out what each child is made of, really get in touch with their personalities and figure out who they are, because when you tap into their strengths you can build them up and help them thrive,” Hurley told FoxNews.com. “If you just set a bunch of ground rules and say, ‘This is how were going to do it,’ one may really succeed and one may really fail.”
Hurley, a mother of two, balances parenthood with her private practice work in Los Angeles.
“I wrote this book because my husband caught me in action using my own strategies and he said, ‘This is magic you gotta write this down,’” she said.
Throughout her book, Hurley shares her personal methods and exercises for getting kids to express their feelings and manage their stress. For example, she asks her children to draw an outline of a person to explain how stress can affect the body and ways to recognize it like, “when something makes you feel stressed or overwhelmed or upset, your heart might beat really, really fast,” or “sometimes people feel really sweaty when they get stressed out, or their hands might feel cold and clammy.”
Teaching kids forgiveness is another tool Hurley uses to help them avoid anxiety and unhappiness. In the heat of a moment, parents can get into a pattern of telling their kids to forgive little things like calling their sibling a bad name or knocking over their Legos. To avoid a meltdown, parents quickly reiterate, ‘Say you’re sorry– and now you say you forgive him,’ Hurley said.
“What we teach them is to gloss over it and move on. Forgiveness isn’t about just letting people off the hook and moving on, it’s about letting go of negative emotion,” she said. “When we carry around pent up negative emotion, it can get us into a negative thought cycle and that can happen with even 3-year-olds, so when we teach them to work through something and to let go– even if they don’t want to play with that kid anymore for the rest of the day or the rest of the week, fine –- but at least find a way to work through those emotions.”
In her book, Hurley describes an activity that helped one of her patients let go of his feelings of anger and resentment. The young boy was upset when a classmate didn’t get in trouble for saying an inappropriate word in class, so Hurley asked him to write down all of the feelings he was experiencing in response to his classmate’s situation on scraps of paper. Then, they crumbled up the paper and played trashcan basketball with them.
“Crumbling each feeling into a little ball gave him a second opportunity to release any remaining anger and shooting each ball into the basket enabled him to throw away his negative feelings while moving on with a positive attitude,” she explained in the book.
Showing children how to be empathic is another trait that parents can help them develop. Hurley keeps a gratitude jar in her house and urges her kids to add little notes on what their grateful for throughout the week like, “I’m grateful for my brother because he helped me with my homework.” Then, at the end of the week, she reads them out loud with her children and talks about what it’s like to think of someone else.
Raising emphatic kids can also encourage them to face and confront bullies at school.
“The research is starting to show that kids who have high levels of empathy are change makers— they can stand up to the bullies and be self-confident and walk away and know that their doing the right thing,” Hurley said. “Harvard’s graduate school of education did this study, the ‘Making Caring Common Project,’ and what their finding is when kids are taught empathy they really are stronger and more pro-social and more willing to help other kids.”
Over the years, news stories on tragic school shootings have put a spotlight on the mental state some kids are faced with. But the question always remains, could the parent have done anything to prevent the violence from happening?
“A lot of the time what you see is that those kids lack any sort of empathy, they really can’t think about how their actions affect other people,” Hurley said.
“We say to kids all the time, ‘Just get over it, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal,’ but sometimes things are a really big deal to kids.”
Hurley also believes that living in a society that minimizes problems has contributed to how some of these troubled kids act.
“It’s the ‘shake it off parenting,’ we minimize emotions and then they hold emotions in. Most of the time they send small signs along the way, but the parents aren’t educated about it,” she said. “We say to kids all the time, ‘Just get over it, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal,’ but sometimes things are a really big deal to kids.”
Parents may feel afraid or embarrassed to ask teachers or school advisors for help when their child is struggling socially, but Hurley believes sometimes a good friend is all a child may need.
“Ask the school, ‘Hey can you help me/him find a good match, find someone sort of similar to my kid so at least he has a lunch buddy?’ And then on the weekends take the time to do things they like so they can find another friend, maybe a Lego building group or special camp, find ways to help the child connect with other likeminded kids,” Hurley recommended.
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