Why Children Need To Be Unhappy Sometimes

Letting children work through adversity is better for them—and for us

No matter how deeply we love our children, parenting them can often feel like walking a tightrope over a field of land mines. We do our best to balance constant—and often competing—demands on our time and energy, knowing that at any moment our attention will be diverted to the latest chaotic episode. It’s an understandable tension given that we are burdened with the constant message that our children’s happiness is the barometer of our success.

At the Seleni Institute, we work with parents every day who find themselves stuck in this struggle. The exhaustion of juggling everything is compounded by a fear of failure. And with all of the emphasis on making the best parental decisions and the easy judgment to be found on the Internet, in magazines, even in our own circle of friends, it’s easy to feel like we are not succeeding.

And it is also easy to lose sight of the real task of parenting: working to raise competent, resilient children who are able to cope with adversity and solve problems with independence and creativity. Here’s the secret: It’s not through happiness.

When we focus exclusively on a child’s happiness, two things happen. First, children miss out on the opportunity to learn the critical skills they’ll need throughout childhood and adulthood to cope with (and work through) their own disillusionment, boredom and discontent. Second, we find ourselves perpetually exhausted as we work to stave off the next tantrum or tearful negotiation.

A solution? Know that children need limits and that it’s normal for them to test those limits. Boundaries tell a child that they’re safe. And their job is to challenge those boundaries to see if what they hope is true: that we’re in charge. Children are so sensitive and clever; they know what we feel and how we perceive things, and they are constantly watching how we behave. They know when we are tired and vulnerable and will often take those moments push harder for what they want. That’s when we are tested the most.

It’s equally important to recognize that being unhappy is just as important as being happy. There are powerful lessons to be learned in the space between those two extremes—by sitting with discomfort and working through obstacles. Your best parenting may be when you hold firm, even with the tantrum. In that moment you’re providing your child with essential skills—even if it feels like every judgmental eye in the city has turned toward your child’s sidewalk meltdown.

Finally, and we know this is easier said than done: Don’t let your child’s emotions spin you out of control or fill you with self-doubt. Your child’s discontent says nothing about any deficit in your parenting. Instead, see their emotional response as a sign that you are setting appropriate limits and boundaries, and that they are, in turn, appropriately testing. Remember too, that you are the person with whom they feel safe to release everything they are feeling. And if you find that you are unable to withstand your children’s negative emotions, take a moment to analyze how you feel and maybe talk through strategies with a professional.

Effective parenting is often found in the messiest moments, so don’t apologize for doing your job. Instead, take heart next time you’re faced with an epic tantrum, and know that you’re providing true structure and tools your child needs to succeed and to, yes, be happy.

A version of this article was originally published in Manhattan Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.