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Happy Parents, Happy Kids? Depends On How Much Support Parents Get

Theravive with Ann Douglas 12 March 2019

If happy parents make happy kids, as the science tells us it does, then how do we ensure parents are happy?

“Economic anxiety is a big piece of the puzzle,” parenting expert and author, Ann Douglas told us. “Given the high cost of housing, childcare, post-secondary education, and all the other assorted expenses that go along with raising a child, it’s hardly surprising that parents are spending a lot of time worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills.”

According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology, parents today aren’t happy, or rather, are not as happy as childless couples and researchers point to a lack of public policies to help families as the main culprit.

It’s a similar theme found in Douglas’ new book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. Douglas says she felt it was important to push back against a culture that is quick to blame parents for their perceived shortcomings, but that isn’t nearly so quick to step forward to offer meaningful, hands-on support. 

“Parents are worried about what the future has in store for themselves and their kids,” Douglas told us. “Jobs are becoming increasingly precarious. They’re likely to be temporary, contract, or part-time. Workplace automation is eliminating a lot of jobs. It can be hard to build a future and raise a family in the wake of all that uncertainty.” 

Ways to make parents happier according to the American Journal of Sociology study include lowering childcare costs so that women can remain in the workforce and see their family’s income and savings rise. Other avenues for the improvement of public policy and therefore, parental happiness include paid maternal and paternal leave as well as more vacation and sick time.

“We know that economic anxiety has an impact on parenting,” Douglas told us. “When parents are stressed about money, they tend to be more anxious and more depressed. They’re less sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs. They’re more likely to rely on harsher and more controlling parenting methods in an attempt to give their kids the edge in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world.” 

Parents can manage this anxiety by acknowledging it, Douglas explains, and by learning strategies for hitting the pause button on their anxiety, and by being willing to talk about what they’re feeling with other people who are feeling this anxiety, too. A lot of the issues that are causing parents so much anxiety are too big for individual families to solve on their own. As sociologists like to remind us, says Douglas, systemic problems demand systemic solutions and parents need to join forces with other families to make things better for ourselves and our kids.

“In terms of what we can do in our own lives right now, we can learn how to become more comfortable with deeply uncomfortable emotions like anxiety,” Douglas told us. “Instead of trying to run from those emotions, we can learn how to acknowledge those emotions and then take a break from those emotions (but without trying to avoid these emotions entirely). And we can teach our kids to do the same. We can surround ourselves by people who care about us and our children and who are willing to help with some of the heavy lifting that childrearing involves. People who are willing to step up and be part of our village, in other words.”

A recent study out of the University of California suggests gender plays an important role in parental happiness when it found fathers are actually happier than mothers noting among other factors, that they just don’t have to worry as much about the daily hassles mothers have to contend with. 

Choose parenting strategies that work for you and your kids (as opposed to you or your kids), offer Douglas. Learn how to parent in a way that brings out the best in your child and that recognizes where your child is in terms of his development. Remind yourself that he’s doing the best that he can with the skills and abilities that he has right now — and celebrate the fact that he can build on those skills and abilities over time. Parenting is ultimately about empathy for your child and empathy for yourself. Parenting is tough and you won’t always get it right, says Douglas.

“Take the best possible care of yourself so that you’re parenting from the happiest, healthiest place possible,” Douglas told us. “Even the tiniest act of self-kindness and self-care can have a huge impact on your mindset. Remind yourself that taking good care of yourself isn’t selfish. It’s an act of kindness toward yourself and your child. Not only are you giving your child the gift of a happy and healthy parent: you are modelling self-compassion and self-care for your child. Reconnect with your hopes and dreams for your child and your family. If you can keep this big-picture in mind, you’ll find it easier to parent in a way that you can feel good about.”

Don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong if you’re not 100% happy all the time, says Douglas. Even the happiest parent isn’t happy 100% of the time. Ditto for the happiest child. But if you can learn to boost your enjoyment of parenting by getting more of the stuff you love (and less of the stuff that drags you down), parenting becomes a whole lot easier and a whole lot more fun. It stops feeling like such a grind, she says.

“Also, try not to beat yourself up when you have a bad day,” Douglas says. “The good news is that parents don’t have to be perfect. No one gets parenting right all of the time. Just hit the pause button, learn from what happened, and try to do things differently next time. We can learn and grow alongside our kids.”