All parents want their children to grow up feeling happy. Who wouldn’t? But research from the Children’s Society shows that over the last 10 years, there has been a significant decline in children’s satisfaction with their lives. Alongside this, we also know that mental health problems are on the rise. With 1 in 6 children having a probable mental health disorder according to NHS Digital data. Although these findings may sound quite alarming, the key thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of children in the UK are doing well, despite these worrying trends. This blog will explore why children’s wellbeing matters. Plus I will share five simple ideas for dads to help support their children’s wellbeing.
What is wellbeing?
Wellbeing is essentially how we feel about our lives overall. It’s about having a sense that our life is going well, that we have the inner and outer resources to handle life’s ups and downs and that we spend time on things that are important and meaningful to us. Some people describe it as ‘feeling good and doing good’. It strongly relates to our mental and emotional health (how we relate to our thoughts, feelings and emotions) and many people use it alongside terms like happiness. Our levels of wellbeing will fluctuate over time because of things outside of our control (e.g. Covid-19, Brexit, our favourite team losing a big game!). And also due to things within our control (e.g. How much exercise we do, how we interpret events, our sleeping habits, etc). Crucially, the latest research from psychology and neuroscience shows that wellbeing is a skill that we can learn and improve with practice.
Why wellbeing matters
Our children’s wellbeing really matters because it impacts so many areas of their lives:
- Wellbeing and learning – there is really strong evidence that shows that children with higher levels of wellbeing generally do better in school.
- A key to future happiness – research from The London School of Economics, lead by Prof. Richard Layard showed that a child’s emotional wellbeing was the strongest predictor of adult happiness. In fact, it was more important than all the qualifications a person ever obtains!)
- Happiness leads to success – the simple fact is happier people are more successful in life across a range of measures. They tend to be healthier, more resilient to stress, earn more money, have stronger relationships and even live longer.
How dads can support their children’s wellbeing
Given that our children’s wellbeing is so important, below are 5 evidence-based ideas for create the right conditions for our children to flourish:
Model good wellbeing
It’s really important we set our children a good example in terms of looking after our own wellbeing. As child developmental psychologist, Alison Gopnik says, ‘Children learn far more from their caregiver’s unconscious behaviours than any of their conscious manipulations. What this means is that we need to make sure that our words match up with our actions. So, if we’re telling our children how important it is to be active and to get outside everyday, they need to see that being active outside is something we do every day. It’s about setting a good example in terms of what we eat and drink, how much we work, our screen-time use and habits, our physical activity, everything. Children are excellent mimickers of their parents, so dads need to play their part and model what we expect to see in our children.
Don’t try and make life easy for your children
Fostering good wellbeing in our children is not about trying to make life nice and easy for them. And it’s definitely not about trying to make our children feel happy the whole time. This is unrealistic and counter-productive. We can actually end up making our children less resilient and less happy in the long run. As former Harvard professor and psychologist Tal Ben Shahar says, “parents (can) confuse struggle with pain; wanting to protect their children from pain, they cater to their children’s every wish and rescue them from every challenge… but struggles and hardships and challenges are a necessary component of an emotionally rich life; there are no easy shortcuts to happiness.’’ Children build up their resilience over time by taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them. Of course they need your support, love and encouragement to help them find the courage to do all of this but do not deny your child the chance to struggle and the joy and satisfaction that comes from mastering tricky things.
Surround your child with good people
Humans are a deeply tribal species. For most of our two million year history, humans have lived and operated in tribes. These extended families provide support, care and teaching for children as they grew and developed. It’s only in the last 10,000 years that humans have moved from living in tribal-based societies to the modern industrial ones many of us live in now. And as psychologists like Prof. Louis Cozolino argues, in terms of biological evolution, that amount of time is the blink of an eye. Humans work best, operate best and are happiest when they feel like they belong to a tribe. So, children need to feel like they have this extended support network around them. It’s about making sure they have regular contact with uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. It’s also about making sure they have wider positive adult role models in their lives outside of their immediate home. When children feel like there’s a wide range of people in their lives who have their back, they can thrive and bounce back from any difficulties.
Talk about feelings
It’s a stereotype that men aren’t as good at expressing their feelings as women, but it does seem to be conditioned into us from a young age. Mara Grunau, executive director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada, points out it’s how we talk to our children and how we encourage them to communicate about themselves too: “Mothers talk way more to their girl children than their boy children… and they share and identify feelings. We almost expect women to be emotional. So, it’s important for dads to talk about how they’re feeling in front of and with their children regularly. And listen to their children share their feelings too. This previous Dadvengers blog has some excellent tips on talking with children about feelings.
Aim to be ‘good enough’
Child therapist Donald Winnicot coined the phrase ‘the good enough mother’ back in the 1960s. It describes a mother who did enough to provide and care for her child without being perfect. Perfectionism, Winnicot argued, was not desirable because it increased the risk of burn out in mums. A bit like point 2 above, it denies their children from experiencing small struggles. But, it’s not just mums that need to be good enough, it’s dads too. There are many expectations on modern fathers and the pressures can be acute. But understanding that we just need to do our best and cut ourselves some slack when we inevitably get it wrong can make things feel more manageable and, ultimately, is better for your child anyway.
Watch the relevant Dad Chats Live Episode
If you’d like to watch and listen to Adrian talking about this subject don’t forget you can check out his guest appearance on Dad Chats Live. Our Weekly parenting chats hosted on our Instgram Account.
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