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Illustration by Joules Garcia

Over the last 2 years, parents have had an enormously difficult task.

They’ve had to learn how to protect their families from a new threat, navigate major shifts in the way they live, improvise in the face of unpredictable changes, and all the while continue parenting.

They’ve had to empathize with their children’s difficult feelings and help them come to terms with isolation and disruption.

They’ve had to play the role of educator, playmate, therapist, and provider whenever called upon, often with little support.

It’s been over 2 years since the first lockdowns began in the United States. Some families are starting to feel ready to move forward, but they’re returning to a different world than before.

The mental health crisis among the nation’s children dates back to well before the pandemic, but the last 2 years have intensified the situation.

“COVID has been an amplifier,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a clinical psychologist, expert on child development, and creator of the “Open Door for Parents” video series.

“If someone had a tendency to feel anxious, they became a lot more anxious. If they were down, they’re more down. Overall, kids are less able to resolve normal conflicts. They’re more teary. They’re hurting.”

While measures taken during the pandemic were necessary for public health, it’s also necessary to find sure footing again, the kind that comes from having purpose, connections, and sources of joy.

Every parent wants their child to have the same opportunities for success and happiness they had before the pandemic, despite the changes we’ve all faced.

It’s not an easy thing to shift from a mindset of safety and survival back to a mindset of living and thriving.

Still, it’s possible. These challenges may even give way to a generation of resilient kids who are stronger, happier, and healthier because of how they’ve learned to cope with difficulty.

“The most common outcome of trauma is not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s growth,” says William Stixrud, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and author ofThe Self-Driven Child.”

“It’s very possible that we’re going to see a generation of kids who went through a very tough time, a very scary time, a very isolating time, and yet grew stronger from it.”

To get there, it’s essential that children feel heard.

They need to know their feelings are natural and human and to re-establish a feeling of safety and peace. They also need help to rediscover their individual pathways to happiness.

In short, they need support to relearn how to fill their joy tanks.

The good news is there’s a lot that parents can do.

From conversations about how to find happiness to actively planning opportunities for shared joy, parents can help kids regain their sense of delight, wonder, and optimism following a period of profound loss and disruption.

“The most common outcome of trauma is not PTSD. It’s growth.”

— William Stixrud, PhD

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When you and your family feel ready to embark on the journey of rediscovering joy, there are steps you can take to get there.

Focusing on joy and happiness doesn’t mean we have to minimize the past.

It’s also important that negative feelings are heard, validated, and processed. Rushing ahead to fun in the midst of unresolved issues won’t make them go away. It can actually lead to repressed emotions.

It’s important that you take the time to determine whether you and your family are ready to move forward. There’s no need to force the process.

Still, the challenges we’ve all faced recently don’t have to define this generation.

“I don’t want to feel sorry for a kid, because I don’t want a kid to feel sorry for themselves,” says Stixrud. “Self-pity has never, ever helped a kid. Instead, I say that I understand that something is painful, but I don’t feel sorry for you. This is part of your life, part of the path you have to go through and that’s OK.”

Reframing in this way validates the experience while letting kids know they can move beyond it.

Before parents can help their children find joy, it’s important to first define it. One thing that experts agree on is that joy can be different for each individual child.

Joy and happiness can be found through snuggling or through playing outside. Some children may be happier playing with a friend, while some teenagers may prefer solitude.

Joy can be found in active ways or passive ways, loud or quiet, in a group or in isolation. The important thing is that you’re attuned to what makes your kid happy and what they may need in any given moment.

“You have to define what joy means for a particular person,” says Mona Delahooke, PhD, a clinical psychologist and expert on childhood behavior.

“You might have quiet joy like reading a book and feeling cozy,” she says. “In some families, you may have children feeling joy when they’re doing rough-house play with their parents or running around.”

Kennedy-Moore agrees and adds that joy can even differ from one country or culture to another.

“There are lots of different kinds of happiness,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Other cultures outside America value quiet contentment more than Americans do, for example. But I’m not going to pass judgment — they’re all good.”

To understand what makes your kids happy, the best thing parents can do is talk with them about it.

It might seem like a simple answer, but Stixrud points out that conversations about what makes a child happy can be rare in many households.

When they don’t happen, kids will fill the void by associating happiness with other values that parents tend to emphasize, like success or achievement.

An over-emphasis on success can lead to endless striving. That may be good for entrepreneurship, but it’s not always conducive to peace and contentment.

While talking with your kids about what makes them feel joy, it helps to keep two concepts in mind: flow and savoring.

Flow is “when we’re so immersed in an activity that we kind of forget time and self-consciousness,” says Kennedy-Moore.

Research has shown that the presence of flow in our lives greatly contributes to happiness, and Kennedy-Moore points out that kids can slip into a flow state more naturally than adults.

“Talk to kids about the flow state,” she says. “Ask them to think about the experiences that give them the flow state, then try to do more of that.”

Flow is “when we’re so immersed in an activity that we kind of forget time and self-consciousness.”

— Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD

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If flow is about losing track of time, savoring is about making the most of it.

Kennedy-Moore describes savoring as the ability to extract the most value possible from a certain pleasurable experience.

Instead of letting a relaxing vacation end promptly with the first work email Monday morning, you can continue to find joy in it by:

  • browsing photos
  • reflecting on your favorite memories
  • revisiting the highlights with your family
  • sharing ideas for your next trip

While some of those instincts might feel natural, they can be easily overlooked when things get busy. Instead, try to make it a ritual to bring it up every day.

“Talk to your kids about their favorite part of today, for example, or about an activity you recently did,” says Kennedy-Moore. “When you replay it like that, it’s a way of extending and relishing that positive experience.”

Among all the difficult conversations parents have to have with their children, talking about happiness can be a welcome relief.

These conversations can not only help you know your kid’s joy triggers better, they’ll center happiness as an important and worthwhile goal.

Of all the factors contributing to the current mental health crisis among children, many experts agree that one of the most common is a feeling of isolation.

When we’re disconnected from our friends, our families, and our systems of support, we can feel lonely and helpless in the face of challenges.

“We’re wired so deeply, so profoundly to connect with other people,” says Stixrud. “We might see a kind of delay in some kids, but most kids won’t get stuck 2 years behind. We’re wired so deeply to seek connection that I don’t think it’ll be irreversible at all.”

It’s important to help facilitate connection between your children and their peers, especially at younger ages. To do so, Kennedy-Moore says there’s one way in particular you can help them, and it’s not throwing a big party.

A 2018 study found that the best predictor of friendship in adults is the amount of time spent together, with casual friendships emerging at 30 hours and solid friendships forming at 50.

While it’s hard to say whether this directly translates to kids, one thing is clear: You can’t make friends if you don’t spend time with others.

“The single best thing parents can do to help their children deepen their friendships is to arrange one-on-one play dates,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Kids make friends by doing fun things together.”

Playdate tips

Don’t wait until the “perfect” moment

“Sometimes, children feel like they have to be soulmates before they can invite somebody over,” says Kennedy-Moore. “But if you had a good time with the person once, it’s a good enough reason to get together.”

Have a game plan and give kids choices

To help ensure the playdate is a success, she also recommends helping your child come up with two possible activities for the day. This helps avoid that awkward moment at the beginning when neither child knows what to do.

“When the friend arrives, they can ask, ‘Do you want to do A or B?’ That gets them to the playing part as quickly as possible,” Kennedy-Moore suggests.

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Maintaining a positive and healthy relationship with your kids isn’t always easy, especially when parents have so much on their own plates. When you feel ready, there’s a lot you can do to help your children reconnect both to you and to their friends.

One of the best ways to strengthen your connection with your kids and help them experience joy is to play with them. And before you bring out the board game or baseball mitt or iPad, take a beat to let them initiate the activity.

“Follow your children’s lead, because children will show us the way,” says Delahooke. “They show us what brings them joy, and their bodies are attracted to activities that bring them joy.”

She suggests finding just 5 or 10 minutes a day away from your devices to play together, doing whatever brings joy to you and your child.

“Follow your children’s lead, because children will show us the way.”

— Mona Delahooke, PhD

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Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to buoy their children’s spirits is to simply care about their happiness. Happiness isn’t a given, and we have the power to cultivate it.

Talking with our children about happiness, facilitating joyful and healthy connections, creating space for play — these are all ways we can intentionally increase the odds of a happy kid.

In an even more direct way, we can actually schedule happiness. Kennedy-Moore calls it “pleasant event scheduling” and it might be the shortest and most direct path to joyful feelings.

“This is where we just plan every day to do something pleasant,” Kennedy-Moore says. “It’s whatever the person counts as a pleasant event, whether it’s going for a walk, or calling a friend, or making the table look pretty, or even using a nice kind of shampoo.”

More ideas to cultivate happiness include:

It can be easy to discount the little things as inconsequential, but they can add up.

“The effort to make time for these small, pleasant moments is how we take care of ourselves,” says Kennedy-Moore.

There’s also a significant benefit to planning the unpredictable or creating space for the unusual.

Both Kennedy-Moore and Stixrud emphasized the importance of breaking out of routine structures when we’re feeling down, whether that means letting ourselves be silly, encouraging our kids to do something silly, or playing in an unorganized way.

Stixrud emphasized the importance of unstructured play, and his words echoed Delahooke’s recommendation to allow for improvised moments of fun.

“Kids are less happy today and more anxious, and that lack of unstructured, kid-directed play is a huge factor,” Stixrud says. “Kids used to play sandlot baseball instead of little league, or use an old abandoned car as a playground, instead of this sanitized, overly safe version we have today.”

Both Stixrud and Kennedy-Moore encourage parents to allow their children to engage in activities that feel daring or off the beaten path. Of course, that doesn’t mean being reckless.

“Obviously don’t let your 4-year-old walk around town alone, but if your kid is old enough, doing more grown-up and deliciously thrilling things can be great,” Kennedy-Moore says.

Finally, all three experts pointed to the importance of fundamentals like getting enough sleep and spending time in nature, when possible.

“When you don’t sleep enough, your capacity for joy goes down quite a bit,” Stixrud says.

The last few years have been hard on everyone, and every child experienced the pandemic differently.

Kennedy-Moore, Delahooke, and Stixrud all emphasize the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and every family needs an individualized approach.

Focusing on joy is a wonderful thing when we’re able to do it. Fortunately, there are proven ways to access it that we can pursue today.