McNerney: In Search of Family Happiness

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

Family happiness: It is something we all want, but it can be difficult to acquire. We want to see smiles from each other and create memories of happy times. But so often our best laid plans end up in tears, resentment, and sulking. I believe there is a way to achieve happiness, but it requires doing something that might seem counterintuitive.

Family Leadership

For me, one of the most difficult parts of being a parent was coming to terms with the fact that I am a leader in the family. Even though I have ended up in many leadership positions professionally, I have always been uncomfortable being a leader. It doesn’t come natural to me. So, when I had children, I had to figure out how I wanted to lead my children. 

Some aspects of family leadership are obvious. Parents set limits, punish, and reward. We give advice and guide our children’s choices. We praise them quite a bit, especially when they are very little. But there is another aspect that can powerfully affect a family’s happiness: The tone we set.

By “tone,” I don’t necessarily mean just the volume or pitch. I mean our demeanor and the mood that we communicate to our family. We all know that moods are contagious. Parental mood can be one of the biggest factors that determine our children’s mood. If we are showing happiness, it increases the chances that our kids will feel happy.

Our mood can affect our children at the neurological level. If your child senses that you are calm and happy by seeing your smile, hearing your tone of voice, etc., their brain assumes that all is right with the world. The vigilant part of the brain relaxes and their brain releases more endorphins that create calm and connectedness. If, on the other hand, they sense unhappiness, anger, or agitation, the vigilant part of the brain activates. All is not right with the world, and they must be on guard. Instead of positive endorphins being released, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol, both enormously powerful stress hormones that stay in the system for hours. 

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

We have established that our mood can have a strong effect on our children, and it is easy to show happiness when you are feeling happy, but what should you do when you are stressed, unhappy, or cranky? Fake it. I know that this seems counter-intuitive. So much of our advancements in psychotherapy is based on trying to be congruent and showing our real selves, especially to those close to us. However, when it comes to parenting, I think we need to remember our powerful role in setting the tone. This means putting on a happier face than we might be feeling at the time.

The research on this approach is compelling. We have found that “acting as if” you are happy will actually increase the likelihood of feeling happy. It also spreads happiness to those around you.

Does that mean you should always act happy? No. Showing sadness when appropriate is normal and models for our children the way to express emotions. This approach isn’t about trying to just be happy all the time. It is about being aware of the power of our mood. If you want more happiness in your family, start by being aware of the power of your own happiness.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at [email protected]

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