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What makes preschoolers happy may surprise you. Child development experts who study the subject say that happiness isn't something you give preschoolers — it's something you teach them.
Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, says over-indulged children — whether showered with toys or shielded from emotional discomfort — are more likely to grow into teenagers who are bored, cynical, and joyless. "The best predictors of happiness are internal, not external," says Hallowell, who stresses the importance of helping kids develop a set of inner tools they can rely on throughout life.
The good news is you don't have to be an expert in child psychology to impart the inner strength and wisdom it takes to weather life's ups and downs. With patience and flexibility, any parent can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness.
Learn to read your preschooler's emotions
When your child was a baby and toddler, you probably had a good sense of whether he was happy or sad. His face lit up in a huge smile when you came home, and he sobbed endlessly when the dog shredded his favorite blankie.
Now that he's older, his emotions are more complex. But fortunately, his ability to control them is growing stronger. Still, the outward signs of whether he's happy or unhappy aren't hard to read. A happy child smiles, plays, shows curiosity, socializes with other children, and doesn't need constant stimulation.
Conversely, says Hallowell, the signs of an unhappy child are clear: The child "is withdrawn, quiet, not eating very much, doesn't spontaneously get involved with other children, doesn't play, doesn't ask questions, doesn't laugh and smile, and has very spare speech."
If you have a naturally shy or introverted child who doesn't laugh or interact a lot, that doesn't mean he's unhappy. Shyness is not the same as sadness, but you'll have to work harder to read his signs. Hallowell says to be aware of any major changes in his behavior — becoming more isolated or fearful — that might suggest he's having problems you should pay attention to.
Paul C. Holinger, professor of psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, has identified nine inborn "signals" that babies use to communicate their feelings. You can recognize these signals in your preschooler also. Two of the signals, "interest" and "enjoyment,", are positive feelings, while the negative signals, especially "distress," "anger," and "fear," add up to an unhappy child.
Most parents recognize that a fearful, easily upset child isn't a happy camper, but Holinger finds that many parents don't recognize that an angry child is usually expressing sadness. No matter the age, "anger is simply excessive distress," says Holinger. When your child hits his brother or yells "I hate you!" it means he's distressed beyond his ability to clearly express (or communicate) the sadness or anger.
Your child probably has his own ways of showing you when he's going through a hard time. Some kids may withdraw, some may throw tantrums, and still others may become clingy. As you get to know your own child's temperament, you'll become better at learning the signs that something's not right in his world.
For more insights into your child's natural temperament, check out our article, "Are children born happy?"
Have fun with your preschooler
If your preschooler took a minute to think about her happiest times, she would probably realize that what makes her happiest is you. And that's the first key to creating a happy child says Hallowell. "Connect with them, play with them," he advises. "If you're having fun with them, they're having fun. If you create what I call a 'connected childhood,' that is by far the best step to guarantee your child will be happy."
Play creates joy, but play is also how your child develops skills essential to future happiness. Unstructured play allows her to discover what she loves to do — build cities out of blocks, teach counting to her stuffed animals — which helps her cultivate interests that last a lifetime.
Kim Orr of Atlanta says that when her youngest was born, the two older children had to drop some of their activities. "With more downtime," says Orr, "they truly are happier within themselves. I see they're able to manage the rest of their lives better, which breeds an inner happiness."
Still, be sure to pay attention to your child's need for structure, even when it comes to unstructured play: While some children are very easygoing, most thrive and are happier with a set schedule that lets them know what's coming.
Help your preschooler master new skills
Hallowell's prescription for creating lifelong happiness includes a surprising twist: Happy people are often those who have mastered a skill. For example, when your child practices catching a ball, he learns from his mistakes, he develops persistence and discipline, and then he experiences the joy of succeeding due to his own efforts.
He also reaps the reward of gaining recognition from others for his accomplishment. Most important, he discovers he has some control over his life: If he tries to do something, he has the satisfaction of finding that, with persistence, he can eventually do it. Hallowell says that this feeling of control through mastery is an important factor in determining adult happiness.
Hallowell warns that children, like adults, need to follow their own interests, or there'll be no joy in their successes.
Rebecca Marks of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, says that her 3-year-old son Zachary's number one interest is construction. "He loves to build things and to help his dad build special projects. It makes him feel good about himself. We try to help him focus on what he has a natural talent for, where we can tell he's really having fun."
Cultivate your preschooler's healthy habits
Lots of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are important to everyone's well-being, especially children's. For exercise, your child doesn't have to be on a T-ball team: Just running around outside helps children with their moods.
You might also want to pay attention to any connection between your child's mood and particular foods. Some parents find that while sugar can give their child an energy boost, it can also create energy slumps when the effect of the sugar wears off. Food allergies and sensitivities may also play a role in your child's behavior and moods.
Let your preschooler figure it out
Sometimes parents think creating a happy child means swooping in to make everything better whenever life throws a curveball. But Carrie Masia-Warner, a child psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-intentioned parents make.
"Parents try to make it better for their child all the time, to make them happy all the time. That's not realistic. Don't always jump in and try to fix it," advises Masia-Warner. "Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope."
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child's 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he'll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.
Learning to deal with life's inevitable frustrations and setbacks is critical to your child's future happiness. Over time, your child learns that no matter what happens, he can find a solution. This doesn't mean your child shouldn't ask for help if he needs it, but your role is to point your child toward the solution, not provide it for him.
Allow your preschooler to be sad or mad
When your child pouts in a corner during a birthday party, your natural reaction may be to say, "You should be having fun like everyone else!" But it's important to allow her to be unhappy.
Hallowell is concerned that "some parents worry any time their children suffer a little rejection, they don't get invited to the birthday party, or they cry because they didn't get what they wanted."
Children need to know that it's okay to be unhappy sometimes — it's simply part of life. And if you try to squelch any unhappiness, you may be sending the message that it's wrong to feel upset. Let your child experience her feelings, including sadness.
Encourage your child to label her feelings and express them verbally. Don't try to solve her problems. Instead, listen and help talk her through them.
Sharon Cohn of West Orange, New Jersey, believes it's important for her daughter, Rebecca, to learn how to express her emotions rather than bottle them up inside. "She'll say, 'Mom, I'm very angry with you' or 'I'm so sad we couldn't go here.' I try to validate her feelings. I say, 'I'm sorry you're angry' or 'I'm sad also,' and we talk about it."
Listen to your preschooler
According to Hallowell, the best advice on how to know if your child is happy is the simplest: Listen. "I ask my kids if they're happy so often they roll their eyes," he says. "It's a way of checking in, of letting them know that I care."
Masia-Warner agrees that open communication is essential in understanding your child's moods. "For instance, say to your child, 'You seem sad. Is there something you want to tell me, something that's bothering you?' Then, let him talk," she says. If your child brushes you off, try again the next day.
But Atlanta mom Orr warns that your child may let loose when you least expect it. "Like one time we were at the grocery store," she says, "and all of a sudden my daughter was crying in the produce section about something that had happened earlier that week."
If you're concerned your child is going through a difficult period, try talking with her regular caregiver or teacher and the parents of her friends to see what they're observing.
O'Leary says that her daughter Jean's first year of school was very stressful for her. "I knew instantly from the look in Jean's eye, and later from her tears, that she was overwhelmed," says O'Leary. She talked to Jean's teacher to find out what was happening in the classroom and to see how they could ease the transition for her.
Most of the time, kids are unhappy or upset due to something stressful in their environment: a fight with a friend, trouble with a sibling, or tension at home. But sometimes the source of their discontent is more serious.
If you see persistent signs of unhappiness — excessive clinginess, reluctance to go to school or daycare, worry that a parent may die, pretending to be sick, sad feelings that won't go away, difficulty sleeping or eating — speak with your child's doctor or consult a mental health professional to get an evaluation.
Whether you see a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, choose someone who specializes in children. And take heart: Masia-Warner says that depression in preschoolers is uncommon.
Teach your preschooler to share and care
Research shows that people who have meaning in their lives feel less depressed. Even young children can benefit from this lesson. For example, helping out with simple household chores, such as taking the laundry out of the dryer, can make your preschooler feel like she's contributing.
New Jersey mom Cohn says that charity and helping others is a big part of their family life. Cohn says that after a natural disaster, her daughter helped collect school supplies and backpacks to donate to kids who lost their belongings.
Be a role model to your preschooler
According to Dora Wang, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and mother of young Zoe, research shows that you can pass on your temperament to your child — not necessarily through your genes, but through your own behavior and childrearing style.
For better or worse, children pick up on their parents' moods. Even young babies imitate their parents' emotional style, which activates specific neural pathways. When you smile, your child smiles and his brain becomes "wired" for smiling.
If you enjoy the small things and say what you're grateful for, you'll be a positive role model for your child, too. Help your child see the glass is half full rather than half empty: If rain cancels an outdoor activity, point out that it's a chance to see a matinee. Cohn tells her kids, "Be happy about what you have instead of being sad about what you don't have."
Peggy O'Leary of Montara, California, finds that when she's highly stressed, her children react immediately. "They silence themselves, they cower."
One time when O'Leary was feeling low, her son August said, "Let's play tag again, like when you were happy." It made her realize how sensitive he was to her moods. She now makes an effort to show her children a more positive attitude.
But you don't have to hide your negative emotions either. You can show your child that you're upset about your best friend moving away, and if you follow up by talking about how you will keep in touch and how much fun it will be to visit her, you'll be teaching your child that sadness is a part of life as well as showing him how to find the silver linings.
Do you worry about whether your child is happy? Take our poll and tell us.
What do you do when your child's in a slump? We asked our site parents, who shared their favorite tried-and-true tips to chase away the blues and bring a smile to their child's face.
Read all seven tips for cheering up your child.