Happiness & Parenting: the PERMA Model

Two global events are happening this week honoring Happiness and Well-Being: The World Happiness Summit (in Miami, Florida- where I live) and The World Happiness Week (in Zaragoza, Spain + 80 countries online); therefore, I decided to invite all of us to reflect on the relationship between happiness / well-being and parenting.

When I ask parents: “What do you want for your child?” the answer is invariably: “I want my child to be happy“.
When I ask parents: “What does that mean for your child, to be happy?” the answer is usually: “I don’t know… for them to live a good life”.
And, as expected, the conversation gets complicated and vague from here.

Because I like clarity in thinking, I will use the PERMA model  for well-being proposed by Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology and author of Thrive, with the goal of translating this framework into everyday tools and behaviors for conscious parenting.

P: Positive Emotion

“Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and other such emotions that contribute to a pleasant life.” (M. Seligman)

Ways to cultivate Positive Emotion in your child:

  • model for your child expressing your own positive emotion/age – appropriate;
  • model for your child a rich vocabulary of words for positive emotion; go beyond “happy” and “good” (examples: I feel joyous, loved/ loving, elated, grateful, serene, proud, satisfied, interested in…, connected, hopeful, inspired, in awe, cheerful, energetic.)
  • ask your child how he/she feels during or after an activity that they enjoyed;
  • don’t lecture or teach the child a vocabulary lesson when they attempt to express how they feel – listen with reverence!; language is a process-based cognitive ability that differs from one child to another and there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to verbal development; furthermore, between 0-7 years of age, parents must focus much less on verbal and academic abilities (which reside in the prefrontal cortex, still massively underdeveloped), and focus their energy in connecting with their children through non-verbal communication (eye contact, smiles, nodding, touching, laughter, roughhousing, physical play).

E: Engagement

“Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity, experiences which contribute to the engaged life.” (M. Seligman)

Ways to cultivate Engagement in your child:

  • don’t interrupt your child when he/she is deeply engaged in an activity that they enjoy (dancing, reading, playing with toys, crafting, building legos, playing a sport, etc). ***BIG WARNING here: video gaming, watching YouTube videos, texting, social media – and any other activity that involves a screen/ digital usage – doesn’t qualify as ‘engagement’. Parents must be skilled at setting firm limits with love and kindness when it comes to digital devices. ***
  • don’t overschedule your child’s life; many parents keep their kids very busy, from a very young age ( usually right after the child is 2 or 3 years old). A young child, under 12, needs ample unstructured time on a daily basis. The time spent in school every day is already very rigid and regimented; having to do homework after school is already stressful for most children; having to show up and perform well in whatever extra-curricular activity parents enrol their kids in- it all becomes overwhelming for the nervous system of a young child, which robs the child of the opportunity to engage (be in the flow);
  • engagement needs space and time (bottom line!), and as parents, it is our responsibility to create the optimal home environment (less rushed, less scheduled activities, less on the ‘to-do’ lists for the kids).

R: Relationships

Positive relationships and a sense of belonging to the community are the most influential factors in determining one’s life long happiness, as we know from the longest study ( 80 years, multi-generational) on the topic by Harvard University. ***Read my previous article, The T’s of Conscious Parenting. One T stands for TRIBE.***

Ways to cultivate positive Relationships in your child’s life:

  • first and foremost, model having positive relationships in your life; children learn values, habits, attitudes, and boundaries from what they see us doing, not from what we tell them they “should” do; what they learn in 0-7 years of age from their keen observation of us (the parents), becomes the unconscious blueprint (i.e., the elephant), for their future relationships. This is the core of conscious parenting – understanding the huge responsibility we have in how we consciously or unconsciously program our children’s brains. The programming is happening either way – let’s be more accountable.
  • connection before correction! – always prioritize connection, listening, closeness over “teaching a lesson”, or lecturing. By definition,¬† a positive relationship requires psychological safety, which is impossible to achieve in the absence of safety. In other words, the amygdala and the limbic system of the child need to feel ‘at peace’ (safe), before we can appeal to the prefrontal cortex ;
  • remember the 4 S’s in parent-child relationship that lead to secure attachment, proposed by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tyna Payne Bryson: a child needs to feel Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure- on a consistent basis.
  • play and laugh every day;
  • spend 1:1 time with each child few times a week (Special Time- see my previous articles);
  • help your child nurture his/ her own friendships – playdates, thank you gestures to friends;
  • involve your child in acts of kindness to others: helping a neighbour, donating to people in need, sending the teacher/coach a small gift, etc

M: Meaning

“Human beings want to live a meaningful life: belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are.” ( M. Seligman)

Ways to cultivate Meaning in your child’s life:

  • first and foremost, model to your child that you are living a meaningful life; that your life is meaningful – whatever that means to you;
  • take time to pause and self-reflect on where you are in your life today; work with a therapist or coach if this task feels difficult to you right now; make a habit of doing this exercise at least once a year and take action moving forward;
  • if age appropriate, take your child with you to witness you living a life of meaning (when you’re working, performing, helping others, writing etc);
  • allow your child to explore different sports, activities, and paths of self-expression; children get excited easily about many things, then they lose interest as quickly; allow for this exploration with patience and non-judgement; unfortunately, many parents fall in the trap of attaching themselves to a sport or activity for their child, and spend endless energy “convincing” the child why that’s the right thing for them;
  • have faith in the future of your child; you don’t have to map out everything for them now (i.e., need for control) ; give them space and time for self-discovery.

A: Achievement

All humans have an intrinsic need for competence and mastery. This should not be confused with achieving ‘status’ for external validation.

Ways to cultivate Achievement (for intrinsic motivation) in your child:

  • cultivate a growth mindset in your household -starting with you;
  • welcome mistakes and failures as lessons to get better;
  • allow for experimentation and exploration;
  • set goals together and work together towards achieving those goals; become your child’s partner on this journey;
  • create daily healthy habits for yourself and your child;
  • mark and celebrate small progress, and small steps;
  • believe in your child that they can.

Which of these 5 areas do you struggle with in your parenting? I want to hear from you. DM-me directly on Instagram @prof_mihaela

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