By Michele Kambolis



Parents have tossed the long-outdated manuals of Dr. Benjamin Spock and now tote the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Gordon Neufeld. As parents ponder ways to set their own ego aside and live more “in the moment, “ they wonder, too, how they can send their children on the path to a happier state of being. After all, it’s never too early for children to find out that they are amazing and powerful beings, with all the inner resources they need to access happiness.


With the latest developments in positive psychology (the study of happiness) to guide us, we are beginning to understand that while around 50 per cent of happiness is actually within our genes, 10 per cent links to circumstances and a considerable 40 percent of our happiness factor rests within our control. That means that some children may have to work harder at it than others, but with a little commitment, happiness is within their reach.


We are also learning how specific changes in our children’s thinking and behaviours can help lead to healthier, happier lives. But is it realistic to expect a hard-working parent to tackle dinner, homework, soccer practice, and the barrage of other tasks while also nurturing a child’s inner Laughing Buddha? Parents are left wondering what is most important in turning on their child’s happiness. Psychologists are showing us that when a child acquires some easily learned habits, he or she can find their innate inner power and most amazing self.  Here are eight ideas to try:


  1. Happiness Homework Expressing gratitude is a tried and true route to feeling happier and more optimistic, and to having fewer health complaints. For kids, creating an art journal with photos and drawings of the things they are grateful for can work nicely. While the strategy is supported scientifically, it only works if the gratitude is honest, so keep in mind that less can be more-don’t overdo it, and make sure it is meaningful and a regular part of your life’s routine.


  1. Get to Know Your Dragons Being amazing does not mean escaping from discomforting negative emotions that we often avoid through various psychological acrobatics. Instead of avoidance, help your child become more tolerant of their uncomfortable emotions by facing them head on. Some children accomplish this by drawing pictures of their emotions and doing a Diane Sawyer-like interview to find out that makes the emotions tick. Encouraging a friendly dialogue between your child and their fear, anger or sadness can help them realize that they have the strength to face the scariest of feelings.



  1. Chase Your Dreams Having a goal and working toward it again and again teaches your child “mastery.” While we all know to avoid putting on the pressure of a hockey Mom during sudden death overtime, gentle pushes toward mastering a skill can give a child a key to happiness. Neuroscientists tell us that hard work and the expectation of realizing a goal activate positive feelings while suppressing fear and other negative emotions.


  1. Love Itself Is Not Enough At the heart of the work of Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher in the emotional health of children, lies the idea that love by itself is not enough to help children develop emotional skills. Parents can take heart in the fact that channeling their caring into some basic skills and doing some emotional coaching can raise their child’s “emotional intelligence.” Children with a higher EQ are more able to regulate their emotional states, calm down, understand others, have healthier friendships, soothe themselves and cope with bullying. They are also stronger academically. Parents who recognize their child’s emotional expressions as opportunities for self-awareness, teaching and problem solving are well on their way to raising that child’s EQ.


  1. Not So Random Acts of Kindness Acts of kindness and reaching out to those in need can lift anyone’s mood and create a sense of purpose. For a child, looking after a pet, helping a grandparent or reading to a younger child – all provide a lift. And they are especially beneficial when they occur at least five times a week. Why do acts of altruism make children feel so good about themselves? It seems they not only make children feel more connected with others, they also shift their focus away from themselves, and that is valuable.


  1. Happiness is Togetherness Close relationships and a sense of “connectedness” provide a valuable buffer against life’s ups and downs. This is not surprising given that children who struggle to develop friendships feel isolated and are at high risk for a whole host of difficulties, such as bullying and learning problems.  While you may not always be in the mood to organize playdates or those trips to the community centre, the payoff of togetherness is invaluable.


  1. The Power of Less Happiness guru Martin Seligman has pointed out that the paradox in having so many choices in life today is that too many options leave us dissatisfied. His research tells us that when children seek what they see as the “best choice”, they feel more pessimistic, stressed, tired and anxious – and disappointed in the end. On the other hand, if we teach them that sometimes “good enough” is exactly what it says, children create a more satisfying life. So, kids, don’t sweat the small stuff, and save being a maximizer – the one who seeks the very best – for only the most important of life’s decisions.


  1. Joy Hinges on Getting a Move on While we intuitively know that the health of our body and our mind is inseparable, we are only now beginning to understand the implications of diet and exercise on mental health and overall happiness.  The latest studies add fuel to the argument that exercise can fend off depression and calm anxieties, as well as protect against harmful consequences of stress. Among all the other health benefits, happiness now weighs in as a reason to walk with our children to school, or to spend a little time chasing them around the jungle gym.


If researchers in positive psychology are right, our children may have the chance to be spared from the levels of anxiety we have grown to accept. Certainly this is one case where there’s little risk in trying, and the bonus of engaging the heart?




Michele Kambolis is the Clinical Director of Harbourside Counseling Centre and Vice Chair of the BC Mental Health Association.