Are you only as happy as your least happy child?

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.

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One response to “Are you only as happy as your least happy child?

  1. Your articles are always so informative! Thanks for reminding me about the biological responses because it really helps to understand my daughter’s bursts of melodrama. 🙂

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