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You Probably Don't Know If Your Kid Is Happy

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I taught my kids to identify their feelings before they could even talk, so we are no strangers to discussions about emotional health around here. They are being raised in a family full of feelings. Sometimes those are positive, but sometimes they're not. My kids know that all feelings have a role to play, and so we talk.

Like any parent, I still have moments when I can't help wondering just how happy they really are. My follow-up questions usually provide some clues (more on that later), and I always make sure to revisit the tough stuff when they're feeling calm.

Perhaps that sounds a bit like hovering, but I know that they will only talk if they know I'm truly listening.

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A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology looked at how parents perceive their children's happiness. Researchers evaluated 357 children, adolescents and their parents. They asked the subjects to rate their own happiness and then asked the parents to assess their own happiness and rate how happy they felt their kids were. The results were eye opening.

Researchers found that parents tend to view their children through their own "egocentric bias," which is a fancy way of saying that they rely on their own feelings to evaluate the feelings of their kids.

It's worth noting that the two age groups in question, 10 to 11 years and 15 to 16 years, can be tricky for parents. In the younger group, kids are developing close social relationships and might not be as forthcoming with parents (they also tend to be very busy with sports and other activities). In the older group, teens are pushing toward independence and likely separating their emotions from their parents to some degree.

Both situations can be confusing for parents.

Many kids experience their biggest emotional shifts around bedtime. This is perfectly normal.

The best way for parents to support their children's emotional needs is to find a way to accurately assess their emotional states. That begins with working on the parent-child relationship, no matter how close the relationship might seem. Here's how to start:

1. Ask more questions

As much as we want to believe that we know our children inside and out, many children have a tendency to be "pleasers." They know that their happiness is important to their parents, and they answer questions accordingly.

Ask more questions. Instead of stopping at "How was your day?" try adding some specifics. "What was the best part of your day?" and "What was the worst part of your day?" Give your kids the opportunity to stop and think the range of emotions they likely experienced during the day. "Tell me something that made you feel happy" (or sad, or both) is another way to engage your kids in meaningful conversation without conducting a daily interview.

2. Make time

Many parents consider the ride home from school (or to and from activities) the perfect time to catch up with kids. But kids often feel completely exhausted during these rides. Sometimes they just want to zone out or talk about less emotionally charged subjects after a long day.

Factor in time in the evening. Many kids experience their biggest emotional shifts around bedtime. This is perfectly normal. As the day winds down and kids prepare for sleep, they tend to run through the events of the day in their minds. Take time to connect with your child at the end of the day. Disconnect from electronics and simply spend time talking. Let your child lead the conversation and ask follow-up questions to convey understanding. Resist the urge to problem-solve—this is a time to provide emotional support by listening and talking.

Many parents feel as if they have to keep their feelings "hidden" in an effort to protect their kids. This is a mistake.

3. Focus on unconditional love

Kids need to know that they can say anything to their parents (without fear of disappointment). They need to understand that all feelings are OK, and they won't face consequences every time they discuss difficult topics.

Open and honest communication is the best way to show your kids that you care and that you love them anyway. Kids will make mistakes. They will tell you stories that you wish you didn't hear. Love them first, then work through problems. When kids realize they can come to you with anything, they are more likely to open up about how they really feel.

4. Share your own feelings

Chances are your kids have seen you feeling angry, sad or excited at times. But did you stop to actually verbalize and address those feelings? Many parents feel as if they have to keep their feelings "hidden" in an effort to protect their kids. This is a mistake. Do kids need to know the details of all things personal in their parents' lives? Of course not. But when parents take the time to verbalize and discuss their own range of emotions, they normalize feelings for their kids. Kids learn a lot from watching their parents. If you stuff your negative emotions to hit play on the highlights reel, your kids will do the same.

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The bottom line is that we all want our kids to be happy and healthy. Supporting kids' emotional needs plays a big role in finding that happy place.

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