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3 Small Changes That Will Make American Parents Happier

Photograph by Twenty20

When I meet with parents for the first time, I always ask them to think about long- and short-term goals for their kids. The short-term goals almost always relate to the identified problem. When kids have anxiety, for example, parents seek coping skills. When it comes to long-term goals, on the other hand, “happiness” generally tops the list.

Parents want their kids to be happy. So much so, in fact, that many parents prioritize the happiness of their kids above all else. I’m stressed but my kids are happy is a refrain I hear over and over again.

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With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the “happiness gap” is a significant issue in modern parenting. A study to be published in the September issue of the American Journal of Sociology found that parents in a majority of the 22 countries studied reported less happiness than their non-parent counterparts.

Tipping the scales with the highest happiness gap (or “happiness penalty” as the researchers call it) is, you guessed it, the United States, where parents reported being less happy than those without kids.

The good news is that parents are not doomed to years of unhappiness simply because they are parents. The research team, led by Jennifer Glass of the University of Texas–Austin, Robin Simon of Wake Forest University and Matthew Anderson at Baylor University found that in some countries (including Portugal, Hungary, Spain and Norway) parents actually report being happier than non-parents.

What gives? Why are American parents so miserable?

'Countries with better family policy packages had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents.'

“What we found was astonishing,” explains the research team in a press release. “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy packages had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents.”

It’s no big secret that the United States lags behind other countries when it comes to paid leave for mothers and fathers, but the study also found that policies such as minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier.

The question is, what can American parents do right now to increase happiness levels and close this gap? We can hound our representatives to improve our parental policies, but we can also change the way we do things on a personal level.

Time and time again, I counsel parents about their own stress levels. I see parents of second-graders in a state of panic about math grades and reading levels. They pile on tutoring and extra curricular activities to “get ahead,” and they add to their own stress levels in the process. Here in the U.S., parents run on stress. “Busy” and “stressed” are badges of honor in many parenting circles, despite the fact that busy and stressed don’t really get us anywhere.

Try these three steps to decrease the family stress level and increase overall happiness in your home:

1. Assess your own stress level

We get caught up in assessing the emotional needs of our kids on a daily basis because kids always need something. One thing I find when parents meet with me alone is that they are overwhelmed with the stress of parenting and managing everything else (work, partnerships, friendships, etc.)

I often use a “stress thermometer” with kids to help them assess their daily stress levels. It’s a simple tool. I print a picture of a thermometer and the child colors in red the amount of stress he experienced that day. On a particularly stressful day, he might color red to the top of the thermometer; on a fairly average day, he might only color the first quarter of it. I also send these stress thermometers home with parents.

Assessing your daily stress level forces you to slow down and consider your triggers, your feelings and how you cope with the day-to-day stress of parenting. Once you stop to consider your stress level, you can figure out how to make changes.

2. Take away two

Whether you have one kid or five, chances are you feel like you’re always on the run, Shuffling kids from place to place and keeping their schedules straight can be overwhelming on a good day, but add extra responsibilities to that and you have a recipe for exhaustion.

Parenting is not easy, and no parent is happy every second of every day, but parenting doesn’t have to be unhappy.

I always ask parents to use a giant wall calendar to organize their responsibilities. Put everything on there that needs to get done on any given day. Then step back, assess the stress hidden within the calendar and remove two things. I suggest doing this as a family, so that the kids can see it with their own eyes. Sometimes we get caught on the treadmill without realizing the hefty price we pay. Taking time to assess (and doing this monthly) helps us make healthy decisions as a family.

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3. Practice coping skills together

Stress trickles down. When parents are stressed, kids pick up on and internalize it. Conversely, when kids are stressed, parents experience increased stress. It can feel like a never-ending cycle.

I often recommend practicing healthy coping skills together. Family exercise in the form of an evening walk or hiking on weekends can be a great way for families to reconnect and talk through their stressors. Practicing deep breathing and mindfulness are great ways to slow down and hit reset. Taking time to journal feelings as a family is a great way to work through negative emotions, and a weekly family meeting to talk about the highs and lows benefits everyone.

Parenting is not easy, and no parent is happy every second of every day, but parenting doesn’t have to be unhappy. When we take the time to evaluate our stress levels and keep them in check, we care for our souls.

And that is what leads to greater happiness.

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