As the saying goes, “happy wife, happy life.” But does it stand to reason that a “happy parent happy family” could also be true? Sure, it doesn’t rhyme, but the sentiment remains the same.
Although happiness is a great thing to strive toward as parents, it shouldn’t be the end all and be all, warns Caroline Leaf, PhD., author of How to Help Your Child Clean up Their Mental Mess, a cognitive neuroscientist, mental health expert, and mom of four.
“It is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time, and setting that as a goal can harm our confidence, motivation, perspective on life, and even our identity because we may think there is something wrong with us as parents if we aren’t happy all the time,” she says. “Happiness should not be the goal, but rather part of the goal of parenting to the best of our abilities.”
Rather than constantly aiming for happiness, Leaf suggests practicing calm acceptance, acknowledging that parenting is hard and understanding the experience will come with a whole host of mistakes. Allowing yourself to feel all of the feels, including disappointment, frustration and fear, is better than pursuing “happiness or bust.”
“It is important to remember that happiness is a feeling, and it can change rather rapidly depending on the context,” Leaf explains. “If we base our goal on a feeling that changes, we will end up disappointed.”
Happiness isn’t the goal
Instead of making happiness the goal, she encourages parents to embrace the highs and lows of parenting. One such way is the five-step method she founded 38 years ago, which serves as the premise for her mind management app, Neurocycle.
“Picture you’re picking your child up from daycare and your toddler is throwing a tantrum. It’s very difficult to focus and there’s the temptation to lose your cool,” says Leaf. “By getting clarity in your mind and completing a mindfulness exercise, such as a meditation or breathing technique, you’ll be able to calm down.”
In this scenario, she advises parents to take notice of how they’re feeling mentally and physically before responding to their child and, when possible, continue along the five-step method.
- First, Leaf instructs parents to gather awareness about their emotions. If you have trouble identifying your feelings, you could try using the Feelings Wheel, an illustration composed of six core emotions at the center of the wheel (happy, sad, disgusted, angry, fearful, bad, and surprised) and offshoots of those emotions in the outer rings of the circle. If you don’t have time to reference the wheel itself, you could try saying, “I feel angry. I feel frustrated. I feel overwhelmed” out loud.
- Next, Leaf invites parents to reflect on how they feel. Could it be that a meeting ran late and you were rushing to get pickup on time? Or maybe your partner forgot to switch out the laundry…again, leaving you without a clean shirt to wear. Whatever the reason, it’s important to understand the root of your frustration.
- If possible, Leaf suggests writing down your reflections to help organize your thinking, but understands this may not always be possible.
- After you’ve evaluated your feelings, take some time to think about what your emotions are trying to tell you. “What does it say about how you view the situation? What is your ‘antidote’—how will you work through what is affecting you?” Leaf asks. “Look for clues in your writing, then start to reframe/reconceptualize the way you are thinking about what happened and how you can improve the situation.”
- Once you’ve had a chance to think, Leaf recommends doing an “active reach.” “This is a thought or action you need to practice daily to help you reconceptualize what you thought about in the previous step—that is, what you are going to do each day to give yourself the time and mental space needed to deal with what is bothering you,” she explains.
That “active reach” could be completing a daily gratitude ritual, allowing yourself to enjoy simple moments with loved ones without focusing on the mistakes, or creating a designated “mind management zone” in your home for both you and your kids to use when in need of a mental timeout. Whatever the case, Leaf encourages parents to approach parenting, much like love, as a verb, not a noun.
“Parenting is a constant process of growing and learning. It’s impossible to know what to do all the time,” she says. “You don’t have to know everything; you have to grow into it. It is not about being perfect or always knowing what to do and when to do it. Understanding this will bring fulfillment and help you through the inevitable challenges of parenting.”