My Child Is Unhappy. What Am I Doing Wrong?

Create an environment that decreases moments of unhappiness with these five tips.
By Gena Ellis
October 7, 2020

Your child is giving you that look. The one that makes you feel like you should’ve done better even when you did the best you could. You know they’re unhappy and you feel like you’ve tried everything to cheer them up and nothing’s working. As a parent, we’ve all been there, and the truth is, the moment passes… most of the time.

When my children were younger, we would go to a small family amusement park near our home. We’d invite friends and family to go as a group usually on a warm summer Saturday afternoon. Inevitably the normal summer afternoon rain shower would start just as we were headed for our outing. Because those afternoon thunderstorms were accompanied by lightning, we’d have to postpone or even cancel our plans. I knew my son would be in a mood for days if we actually had to cancel. I’m talking full-on sad, pouting, and disappointed look on his face. I’d try to cheer him up by saying we can go next weekend or by taking him to another fun place for kids. But his mind was set; it was like I couldn’t offer up anything as good despite all of my best efforts, I still had an unhappy son.

Things have changed in ways we never expected this year. COVID-19 has taken away our access to normal activities. Your child may have missed spring sports, annual family trips, or even dealt with the death of a loved one. You get to teach your child how to process and move through a variety of emotions including moments of disappointment and being unhappy. As a parent, you can do everything in your power or even give your child their biggest wish, and they can still be UNHAPPY. 

Your child actually gets to choose whether they are happy or not. Hal Runkel, LMFT, often says, “You are responsible to your kids, not for them.” In most instances, you, the parent, are not at fault nor did you cause your child’s moment of unhappiness. You do have the opportunity to help them see the positive and be happy even in difficult situations.

Here are ways you can create an environment that decreases moments of unhappiness.

  • Know Your Child Is Watching You.

As parents, we model for our children many different things including how we deal with emotions. Your child is very perceptive and in watching you may recognize and mimic your emotions. If you’re dealing with stresses that impact your emotions, your child may also demonstrate the same reactions. It’s good that your child sees you have a variety of emotional responses. Also, be aware if you try to put on a “happy face,” your child will often see through that. They learn being sad or unhappy or angry is normal and how you can get through it.

  • It’s Normal For Kids To Be Unhappy When You Set Limits.

Many parents want their children to always be happy. That’s a lot of pressure to place on yourself. Primarily, it’s your job as a parent to provide consistency, structure, rituals, and routines for your child. As a result, your child may display unhappiness when you set and stick to limits such as bedtime, eating vegetables before dessert, tech device access, or saying NO to what they want. It’s also important to recognize that children often “want what they want” and can use their emotions to manipulate getting their way. Don’t fall for it.

  • Allow Children To Express Genuine Emotions.

If a family member is sick or a family pet has died, it’s good that your child can express their emotions of sadness and unhappiness to you. Allow them to genuinely and authentically share with you what they are feeling. This strengthens your connection. Children feel supported and secure when parents can hear and handle their emotions. 

Your child’s personality may be more optimistic or pessimistic. No matter the case, it’s important to teach your child they are responsible for how they respond or react to any given emotion. In addition, skills such as gratitude and even thinking happy thoughts are ways to build their emotional skills.

  • Playtime Can Make It Better.

Play, whether it is structured or unstructured, promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Children learn how to work with others, handle conflict, and regulate their emotions while playing. Getting outside to play not only encourages bonding with your child, but it also releases endorphins which naturally improve your mood.

In some instances, there are very good reasons why your child is unhappy. A divorce, death, move to a different city, or even across town would be challenging for most children. What happened may be completely out of your control. If you feel like you’ve tried everything you know to help your child adjust, you might want to consider seeking professional help to guide you as you seek to assist your child in dealing with their ongoing feelings of unhappiness.* If your child has health issues or mental health issues, seek professional help.

We want our children to be the best they can be. We want successful, smart, and happy kids. Providing them with emotional and physical security along with age-appropriate behavioral expectations goes a long way. Creating an environment for them to flourish and grow begins with you.

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