The Unhappy Child
Persistent unhappiness in a child is a serious symptom. Something is definitely wrong, and the child is reacting. What is it and how can we find a remedy? Parents intuitively know this because almost every mother and father I have met during my forty years of clinical practice has started our first session by saying, “Doctor, all I want is for my child to be happy.”
Children should be happy, vibrant individuals who explore their world—learning, playing, and having fun. But no child can expect to enjoy a fulfilling life if his or her days are overwhelmed with feelings of fear, frustration, anger, resentment, or other powerful emotions that turn what should be a special time of life into one of gloomy sadness. In this book, I will show you how to discover the source of your child’s unhappiness, and I provide many strategies to help you help your child to be happy again.
If I had one wish, it would be for children to always be happy, healthy, loved, and cared for. All adults who cherish children want them to be happy. We want to kiss every hurt and make it all better. But life can be difficult, and children often do live unhappy lives. As a child psychologist I have been talking and listening to unhappy children for more than four decades. I know that if a child’s unhappiness persists, the youngster is at risk for developing serious mental and emotional disorders, even depression.
The American Medical Association reports that mental disorders have become the leading disability among our children, and depression is at the top of the list. A number of studies have reported that upward of 25 percent of US children and 8.3 percent of teenagers suffer from depression. Today more people are experiencing depression earlier in life than in any previous decade. Studies also show that depression in children and adolescents is associated with an increased risk of suicide, which is now the third leading cause of death in young people between the ages of ten and twenty-four (see references).
Why are mental health problems in general and depression in particular on the rise for children and adolescents in the United States? Dr. Nicholas J. Long, a professor of special education at American University in Washington, DC, responds:
The decay and dysfunction of the family and the shocking social problems in communities have created a new level of deviancy and disturbance never before seen by adults who work with children.
Dr. James Garbarino, Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, agrees:
I think it is because children today live in a socially toxic environment.What I mean by the term socially toxic environment is that the social world of children, the social context in which they grow up, has become poisonous to their development. The lack of adult supervision and time spent doing constructive, cooperative activities are important toxic aspects of the social environment today, and compound the effects of other negative influences in the social environment for kids. Kids home alone are more vulnerable to every cultural poison they encounter than they would be if backed up by adults.
Knowledgeable people and experts provide us with many reasons for the increase of mental health problems in children. I have my own list of reasons:
• overworked and overscheduled parents who have little time to enjoy a fulfilling family life and for one-on-one time with each child
• parents dismissing their child’s troublesome behavior as being either a stage or an attitude problem rather than seeing the behavior as symptomatic of a developing emotional problem
• children unprepared by their parents to cope successfully with life outside of the home
• children growing up in a conflicted, unhappy, tensionfilled home environment
• children stressed and overwhelmed by multiple family breakups and remarriages
• children parented by parents with untreated mental health disorders
• peer cruelty and bullying that is so prevalent today in our schools and neighborhoods
• the many opportunities in our society today for children to get into trouble
• the media exposing children to terrible role models who undermine the good intentions of the best parents
• less than 20 percent of the emotionally troubled children in this country receiving treatment
Given the many and enormous obstacles facing children, parents, and families today, I am tremendously encouraged that millions of parents like you are doing a heroic job of raising their children. You would not have purchased this book if your children were not number one in your life. I offer it to help parents just like you. I want to share with parents what I have learned over the years so that my observations about interactions between parents and children can help you recognize your children’s unhappiness before it leads to more serious emotional or psychological problems. I will show you how to search for the hidden feelings that plague your unhappy child. Then I will provide practical advice to assist you in your efforts to resolve your child’s unhappiness and thereby reduce his or her risk for further emotional distress.
The Unhappy Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know shows you in very practical ways how to help your unhappy child. The first chapter is about divorce. There is a saying that you can take a bad situation and make it worse. Divorce is generally a bad situation for children. This chapter makes parents aware of how they can avoid making their divorce worse for their children. Chapter 2 focuses on how depression can impair a mother’s or a father’s ability to parent. I show parents how they can become aware of their depression, help themselves, and eventually become effective parents again. In chapter 3 I emphasize how important it is for parents to be vigilant in recognizing the signs that one or more of their children have concluded that they are failures—that they are not as good as other children. Once this destructive feeling is uncovered, I offer parents sound options for reinforcing and stimulating their child’s sense of self-worth.
Chapter 4 is about how children suffer when they are without friends. Here I instruct parents on how to guide their child toward attracting more friends and how to protect their son or daughter from the abuse of school bullies. In chapter 5 I offer help to those parents who unknowingly have hurt their children as a result of frequent fights or continuous quarreling. Favoritism is the focus in chapter 6, where I guide parents to understand the harm favoritism brings upon the lessfavored child, and I explain in detail what they can do to overcome this problem. In chapter 7 I show parents how their permissiveness not only fails to prepare their children for life’s challenges but also creates unruly, undisciplined, and ultimately unhappy children. Parents are offered much-needed advice on how best to take charge of their families.
The problems of stepfamilies are taken up in chapter 8. Parents are provided with a map for wading through all the traps inherent in a blended family and with useful tips on how to achieve the strong familial bonds each member so desperately seeks. Chapter 9 spotlights a topic few parents recognize as a problem at all, namely, sibling abuse. I explain what parents can do to intervene when one child is incredibly cruel to another child in the family. In chapter 10 I show parents how their excessive anger undermines their efforts to parent effectively, and I offer guidance on how mothers and fathers can better manage that anger.
After working through so many of the ordinary and extraordinary causes for unhappiness in today’s child, I turn in chapter 11 to a subject that gives me tremendous pleasure and satisfaction. I finally have the opportunity to describe what children need to be happy.
People understandably are cautious about taking advice from someone they do not know, especially where their children are concerned. So let me tell you how my interest in children began. My career goals took shape after a lifechanging experience that introduced me to the world of the unhappy child. This experience launched my professional life by teaching me so much about helping these sad kids and what they need to become well adjusted and happy.