Like any parent who wants the best for her children, Trish Bragg has done everything she can to make sure Isabel, Charlie, and Madeline are healthy, have plenty of stimulating activities to fill their day, and are loved unconditionally. Yet, like many, she struggles with parenting’s million-dollar question: Are my kids happy? “Among all my friends, that’s what we want to know,” Bragg says.
What makes children happy may surprise you. Child development experts who study the subject say that happiness isn’t something you can give a child like a prettily wrapped present. In fact, says Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, over-indulged children — whether showered with toys or shielded from emotional discomfort — are more likely to grow into teenagers who are bored, cynical, and joyless. “The best predictors of happiness are internal, not external,” says Hallowell, who stresses the importance of helping kids develop a set of inner tools they can rely on throughout life.
The good news is you don’t have to be an expert in child psychology to impart the inner strength and wisdom it takes to weather life’s ups and downs. With patience and flexibility, any parent can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness.
Learn to read the signs
As your child matures from a newborn to a more interactive baby by the age of 6 months, he’ll become a master at showing you when something makes him content or upset. His face lights up in a heart-melting smile when you enter the room, or he wails when someone takes away his favorite lovey. And you’ve probably noticed that he flips between smiling and crying faster than you can pop ain his mouth.
According to Lise Eliot, a pediatric neuroscientist and author of What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, a baby is so mercurial in his emotions because his cerebral cortex, which controls automatic responses, is barely turned on yet. As the cerebral cortex develops over the coming years, your child will be able to better control his behavior and moods.
If it seems your baby spends more time wailing than giggling, that’s because babies actually experience distress earlier than happiness. Crying and distressed facial expressions are there for a reason, explains Eliot. They serve as an SOS to motivate the caregiver to fix whatever’s wrong.
But if your baby is crying, how do you know if he’s in pain, hungry, or just bored? “A sensitive mother can pick up on different kinds of cries and facial expressions,” says Paul C. Holinger, professor of psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. “The eyebrows, the mouth, and vocalizations are all signaling systems for the baby.”
For example, a baby in physical distress will cry with the corners of his mouth turned down and his eyebrows arched in the middle. With anger, your baby’s face becomes red, his eyebrows turn down, his jaw clenches, and he lets out a roar. Most parents recognize that a fearful, easily upset baby isn’t a happy camper, but Holinger finds that many parents don’t recognize that anger is simply excessive distress. “If there’s a loud noise or bright light,” he says, “the child will show signs of distress. If that noise or light continues to increase, the feeling turns to anger.”
Carrie Masia-Warner, a child psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, warns that you shouldn’t read too much into your baby’s moods. “I wouldn’t call babies happy or unhappy,” she says. “They’re content or not content based on something in their immediate environment.”
While the youngest infants don’t really feel happy when they look happy, the good news is they’re not emotionally aware when they’re screaming, either. Eliot explains that the “cortical emotion centers” of your baby’s brain don’t begin to function until he’s 6 to 8 months old, when he starts to feel the emotions that seem so vivid on his face.
Your baby probably has his own ways of showing you when he’s not content. Some babies may cry, while others become clingy. As you get to know your own child’s temperament, you’ll become better at learning the signs that something’s not right in his world. For more insights into your child’s natural temperament, check out our article, “Are children born happy?”.