This brief article looks at what young people need for resilience and wellbeing and how the myths of happiness often stand in the way of that. We explore what parents might do to help their child develop a positive sense of self, the ability to problem-solve when things are tough, and be proud of who they are becoming in the world.

Where does happiness lie? Not where you might think!

We are often misled about the nature of happiness. If you watch the ads they give the impression that having the best and latest of everything will make you happy. And of course, having something new might bring a burst of euphoria – but it is usually fairly short-lived. We tell children by various communications, sometimes indirectly such as pointing out what others have achieved, that they need to get high grades to be successful in this competitive world. The implication is that this will make them happy. Many young people also get the impression that in order to be ‘acceptable’ you have to look and behave a certain way – and those that don’t risk derision, if not bullying. Being different may not be special and something to celebrate but rather to be feared.

A* or bust!

Part of this conformity is the value put on high academic scores. Parents naturally want the best for their children and many believe that this is about getting excellent exam results that will give entry into a ‘good’ university, leading to a desirable job and the salary and status that comes with this. So we now have a generation of young people many of whom are being tutored to within an inch of their sanity to get the grades that will bring them this kind of ‘success’. But what if this pressure comes at the price of mental health and success in other areas of life? We have increasing numbers of students highly anxious about not being ‘good enough’, who aim for unattainable perfection and may end up seriously depressed or with a poor sense of self. They may not show this because it is not ‘cool’ to be sad. Others resort to self-harm because it makes you feel better when endorphins kick in to heal the harm. And the end result of those high grades may not lead to the success that was promised. The evidence says that students who have been ‘hot-housed’ are more likely to drop out of university once left to their own devices to study. And the jobs that were once there for the taking are not so easy to come by any more – and that will be even more the case post pandemic.

And then there are those who are brought up to believe that they are entitled to the best, that others don’t really matter and to be successful you have to go your own path, even if this means putting others down. There are plenty of ‘successful’ CEOs who have little or no empathy and generate toxic environments for everyone they work or live with. One wonders whether they are seriously missing out on authentic wellbeing because they are so focused on their bank balance.

So are we losing the balance between our kids being happy and being ‘successful’. What is the point of getting into a ‘good university’ if your child’s mental health is shot to pieces and they are unable to form sustainable and healthy relationships?

Although poverty undoubtedly impairs wellbeing, authentic happiness does not lie in stuff or status. It lies in the following: the quality of our relationships and feeling connected, having some autonomy and a voice in what concerns us, a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, and feeling we are competent. Achievement does matter but it needs to be something we choose to aim for, not what is imposed.

Positive relationships are crucial

Beyond anything else it is the quality of our relationships that makes the most difference to wellbeing. There is a wealth of research on this, but one that has received much attention is Harvard longitudinal study, now in its 80th year. The researchers found unequivocally that: Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives … Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. You can hear Robert Waldinger, the current director of the project, talk more about this on his TED talk (now watched by over 32 million people).

It is astonishing there is not more effort made in education to help young people learn how to establish and maintain a positive relationship, mend a broken one or recognise and leave those that are toxic. It has become clear in the recent lockdown scenarios that those who are living in supportive, caring families are doing well whilst others are at risk from those they live with. Although a recent study by University College London indicated that wellbeing has largely gone up for children because they have more time with those they love, it is also a fact that rates of family violence have accelerated. When schools go back we have to do better on ensuring young people have the understanding, skills and competencies that underpin a healthy relationship and how to recognise when friendly – even romantic – behaviour tips into coercive control.

What can parents do to ensure their children grow up to be strong individuals, proud of who they are and who they are becoming?

So how can families help? The parenting style that has the best outcomes for children – helping them feel connected, independent, competent and keen to discover their sense of purpose is known either as authoritative or facilitative. This combines warmth and acceptance with high expectations for who their child is in the world. Such families expect their child to work hard and do their best but not at the expense of other aspects of their lives. Parents need to let children know that they are loved and accepted for who they are. It is wise to fit expectations to the children you have, not try and shoehorn children into your expectations. Facilitative families also let children know that unkind or irresponsible behaviours are not acceptable and show them by example what behaviours to copy. Strong families work together. This means letting children know that they have responsibilities as part of the family and although you will help them with these you are not there to be their servant. You are also not there to be their best friend – this is especially true of teenagers!

Strong families have conversations about values and what is important. They help their child identify not just their academic strengths but also their character strengths, and then give them opportunities to demonstrate these – creativity, kindness, good humour and resilience are just a few. Acknowledging these will help children learn to tune into those of others. Simply say “I love the way you …”. or “thank you for …”.

Facilitative parents do not give their children the answers to life’s dilemmas and difficulties but help them learn to problem-solve. This means asking children what options there are for addressing a problem. Once several have been generated, they are asked to explore the pros and cons of each. The child chooses one option and the parent asks what they can do to support this. This enables a young person to have a sense of competence and the tools to develop a healthy independence. When things go wrong the conversation is around what they learnt from this and what might they do differently next time. This is so much healthier than blame and retribution.

Children learn by watching, listening and copying significant adults. This means that all the adults in a family need to be aware of both how they talk about people and how they deal with situations. It means showing it is OK to make mistakes, not be perfect, and admit and even apologise when you didn’t understand, over-reacted or simply got things wrong. It means acknowledging your own feelings including the more difficult ones – but also about how you cope with these. A highly anxious parent is more likely to have a highly anxious child. Someone who deals with challenges calmly is demonstrating how to respond in a crisis. Simply saying “I am going to have a five-minute breathing space before I deal with this”, or even “I need to count to 10”, gives the message that it is OK to wait a while before responding. It is often knee-jerk reactions that we most regret later, so this is a valuable lesson to learn.

Talk often about what gives life meaning to you – and what brings you joy and contentment. This will help your child begin to think about what really matters to them – and perhaps to stop sweating the small stuff, but also help them to tune into the small daily blessings of their lives. There is plenty of evidence that being grateful for what you already have promotes mental health and wellbeing. It would also be unsurprising if families who begin to do this suddenly realise, perhaps for the first time, what is most important in their lives and stop worrying about keeping up with others.