According to the 2022 Good Childhood Report published by the Children’s Society in the UK, children’s happiness has been continually declining over the last 10 years. On average, young people have become less happy with their friends, appearance, school and life in general. According to this research, 1 in 8 children are unhappy with school, and 1 in 9 children have low well-being.
Poor mental health and unhappiness in children often lead to poor mental health and dissatisfaction as an adult. As the British Cohort Study found, emotional well-being during childhood and adolescence has a big impact on future life satisfaction. According to this research, happy children go on to have better careers and relationships and experience better physical and mental health as adults. So, if caregivers can work to improve the mental health of children, they are giving them the best chances of future happiness.
Every parent, teacher and caregiver wants to make the children in their care happier and healthier. But of course, this is easier said than done. By implementing these science-backed strategies and educating yourself further, you can work to improve children’s lives now and long into the future.
If you want to learn more about children’s happiness and well-being, there are many great child mental health courses available online.
Here are 5 science-backed strategies for developing happier and healthier children:
1. Become a Happier Person Yourself
As Christine Carter’s book ‘Raising Happiness’ shows, happy parents are more likely to have happy children. Emotional problems in parents and other caregivers are linked to emotional problems in children, and unhappy caregivers are also less effective carers. Whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, your own happiness affects how happy the children in your care are. As McCarty says in her paper published in the American Psychological Association in 2003, extensive research shows a substantial link between problematic mother-child relationships and “disruptive behavior-disordered outcomes” in their children, such as behavioral problems and mental health issues.
This research highlights how important it is that parents and other caregivers take care of their own mental health. Caregivers should take good care of themselves mentally and physically, and seek help if they struggle with their mental health. When they do this, they create a better environment for the children in their care and model effective emotional coping strategies.
2. Teach Children to Manage Their Feelings
Emotional intelligence is not an inherent trait, it is a learned skill. There are all sorts of lessons and activities that carers can do with children to support their mental health and well-being and teach them to manage their feelings. Children should be taught emotional language/literacy, positive coping, problem-solving, stress management and how to seek help when they need it. With the right emotional toolkit, children can learn to recognize, manage and express their emotions and seek help when they need it. You can also teach children how to improve their mental health and well-being, by encouraging them to take breaks from screens, spend time with people who make them happy, play outside, get creative, listen to music, eat well, get more sleep and talk to someone if they need.
According to John Gottman’s book published in 2011, children who can regulate their emotions learn to focus better, which is important for their long-term success. These children also experience better physical health. To help children manage their emotions, Gottman suggests that parents/carers should:
- Empathize with children
- Demonstrate their own emotional self-management
- Explain to children that all feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviors are
- Acknowledge progress
3. Encourage Effort Over Success
As Dr. Carol Dweck’s research published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 shows, children who are taught that effort and attitude are more important than achievement go on to have more success in the long run. Parents who focus on and demand achievement are more likely to have children with high levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse. According to Dweck, when children are praised for the effort that leads to achievement – and not the achievement itself – they want to keep engaging in that process. They won’t be diverted from the task of learning by concern about how smart they may or may not appear. This means that parents, teachers and other carers should look out for opportunities to acknowledge and praise children’s good behavior, attitude, and effort. With this approach, the children will naturally achieve better outcomes through their perseverance, and will develop a genuine passion for learning.
4. Encourage Optimism
According to Christine Carter’s book ‘Raising Happiness’, 10-year-olds who are taught how to think and perceive the world optimistically are half as likely to experience depression when they go through puberty. Carter’s research has found that optimists:
- Are more successful at school, work and athletics
- Are healthier and live longer
- End up more satisfied with their marriages
- Are less likely to deal with depression and anxiety
5. Give Children Time to Play
Playtime is essential for children’s learning and growth. Research in the book ‘Raising Happiness’ indicates that children who don’t have enough unstructured playtime are more likely to have developmental issues related to their physical, emotional, social, and mental well-being. Unstructured play helps children to learn how to self-regulate and promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured play also teaches children how to share, negotiate, work in groups, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions, manage their behavior, and speak up for themselves.
The Good Childhood Report, 2022
Carter, Christine. Raising happiness: 10 simple steps for more joyful kids and happier parents. Ballantine Books, 2010.
McCarty, Carolyn, et al. “Mediators of the Relation Between Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Child Internalizing and Disruptive Behavior Disorders.” Journal of family psychology: JFP: journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), vol. 17, no. 4, 2003, p. 545, https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-318.104.22.1685.
Gottman, John. Raising an emotionally intelligent child. Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Dweck, Carol S., Gregory M. Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen. “Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning.” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2014).
Time Magazine, How to Raise Happy Kids: 10 Steps Backed by Science, 2014