Sometimes raising happy kids feels like an insurmountable task. Someone’s in tears over not getting to eat cake for breakfast, someone’s mad over not going to a friend’s house, and someone’s mad over limited screen time. You get the idea. It’s easy to feel like parenting is equal to plummeting into a black hole in outer space.
Recently in our home, I decided to try a few things that are scientifically-proven to increase mood and happiness to see what happened.
Would these things actually work?
Could I increase my child’s happiness through a few actionable steps?
And could this increase our overall happiness as a family?
The results were pretty astounding and transformative. It probably sounds like I’m embellishing, but these 3 steps made all the difference in our day to day happiness.
Start exercising with your kids.
This seems overly simple, but hear me out. Scientifically-speaking, here’s why age and developmentally appropriate exercise will improve your kid’s happiness:
When your child starts exercising, the brain recognizes this as a small stressor. As heart rate increases, the brain thinks he is fighting or fleeing some bad guy down the street. To protect his brain from stress, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is released. This BDNF repairs, protects, and improves the learning and memory capabilities of the brain. This is why kids feel at ease after exercising and eventually happy.
Basically, kids are stressed over the crazy chaos going on in the world, and exercise is the perfect activity to allow for the release of stress.
This in turn, improves their self-esteem, learning, sleep, and mood. A win-win in my book.
How to get started with exercise:
Exercise is as simple as heading to the playground with your child or asking your child to walk rather than be carried or ride in the stroller. For a small child a little bit of activity goes a long way.
Recently, my child stayed with a babysitter for a few hours while I got my haircut. She was planning to take him to a play date several blocks away, so I asked if she wanted to use my stroller. She politely declined, and said that he could walk, right? I mean…Hello, Earth to myself! Yes, encouraging and allowing kids to walk not only offers them exercise, but it also encourages independence. After walking a few blocks to and from the play date, he was happier and also completely ecstatic to lay down for his afternoon nap. Another win-win.
While there are no exercise guidelines for children under 6 that I could find, I think it is safe to say that walking or playing at the playground for 30 minutes (give or take based on the individual child) is a reasonable amount of time for most small children.
After seeing so much improvement in my child’s mood from simply walking to a play date, I recently started encouraging him to walk at many places we go, rather than simply putting him in the stroller. Just an extra few blocks of walking is enough to burn off some stress and improve his mood. If you are worried about a runaway toddler, check out these tips from Toddler Approved to encourage your child to stay close.
For an older child (age 6+), did you know it is recommended by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get an hour or more of activity each day?
Wow. I was really surprised to learn that fact, and ultimately, it made me think that many children are not reaching that daily amount of exercise. See the CDC’s full report called How Much Exercise Do Children Need? for more information.
Start roughhousing with your kids.
I was reading an article by Dr. Laura Markham on the website Aha Parenting the other day, and came across a fabulous post about tantrums. Her writing and parenting wisdom was so helpful I ordered her book called, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting (affiliate link). If you are interested in reading along too, you can click the link above to order a copy through Amazon.
At any rate…
One of the things she talks about in this article is roughhousing with your kids as a way to release stress. Basically, the world is chaotic and overwhelming to kids, making them feel stressed throughout the day. This builds up overtime and kids need a way to release the stress.
So in addition to exercise, you can roughhouse with your kids through physical games such as ride the horsy or tag or any sort of gentle wrestling. The ultimate goal of roughhousing is to help your child laugh to release stress. According to Markham, “Laughter […] transforms the body chemistry to reduce the stress hormones.” This is a similar effect to outdoor activities and exercise, which I mentioned above.
Dr. Markham cautions against the use of tickling to induce laughter, as it does not have the same effect as true laughing. Know this…during roughhousing kids not only enjoy laughing, but they also enjoy physical bonding with a parent. She also recommends avoiding roughhousing in the hours immediately before naps or bedtime to avoid kids getting too excited before sleep.
So I tried her theory out a bit in our home, and the effect was literally immediate. Yes, after about 30 minutes of roughhousing my child literally transformed into a happier, calmer, and more focused child. We’ve been using roughhousing nearly every day since.
Start listening to music with your kids.
Again, this is another super easy, yet actionable way to improve your child’s happiness. Like exercise and roughhousing, music also transforms a body’s chemistry through the release of dopamine, which increases feelings of euphoria and improves mood.
One study found that participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad to match the tone of the music they heard. So if your kids are listening to happy music, it is possible they will in turn perceive others around them as happier people. Overall, listening to happy music improves ones perceived happiness.
Another study found that moderate noise improves creativity and focus. So when children get frustrated with a toy or game, it’s possible they are more likely to troubleshoot a problem creatively rather than give up if they are listening to music.
So how can you implement music into your child’s daily life?
Well, it’s easy really. Start with a radio or ipod playing softly in the background. Sometimes, we use soft instrumental music, like when my son is playing independently in his room. Other times, we play the children’s indie music station on Pandora and have a little dance party in the house. We do not use music constantly, but rather during a set hour or two to help offer a mood boost.
Altogether these three things—exercise, roughhousing, and music—seem pretty simple. You’re right; they are. But I think it’s easy to forget we have these really useful tools in our parenting tool belt. Remembering to use each of these things daily can truly transform your child’s day to day happiness. Here’s the first bonus: these three things are entirely screen free and enable parents and kids to feel more connected to one another. Here’s the second bonus: these three things help people of all ages—kids and adults alike—feel happy. You may find you start to feel a lot happier as well. Now, wouldn’t that be grand?
Want more on practical parenting?
- Feeling the Intense Pressure of Parenting (+How to Fix It)
- 5 Ways to Help Your Child Value Good Character
- What No One Tells You About Parenting Toddler Boys
Note: This post is part of 3 part series about lessons learned after reading the book Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham.
- Part 1 – 3 Secrets to Raising Happy Kids
- Part 2 – What Kids Secretly Want you to Know about Roughhousing –Girls Included!
- Part 3 – Why Every Great Mom Fills Her Cup First
- Or to read Dr. Markham’s fabulous parenting book, you can click the link—Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids—to see it on Amazon.
What’s your best tip for raising happy kids? Please share your ideas in the comments so we all can learn!
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