A Good Life:  Positive Psychology Perspectives

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Every responsible parent wants to help their child find a path to “A Good Life”. Positive psychology has something to offer.

In positive psychology, we say the good life is happy and successful. A happy and successful life is one where were we can engage our strengths to make a difference that is meaningful and rewarding. To find a good life, children must feel the joy that comes from hard won successes and the unpleasant sting of regret that can follow bad decisions.

In pursuit of a good life, a child’s emotions are a compass. This “emotional compass” can lead us to and from the path. The ability to use emotional information correctly can lead to a rewarding and meaningful line of work, physical and mental health, as well as satisfying relationships with our friends and loved ones.

Accurate and rich emotional awareness can provide us with insights that are more meaningful and useful than mere rational thinking can provide. But, emotional instability can mislead us and result in relationship problems, misguided efforts and a confused sense of purpose in life.

There are five important emotional skills.

1.   Correct experience of emotions. Many children, because of medical conditions or psychological trauma, do not experience emotions that are necessary, healthy and understandable. For example, children with bipolar spectrum disorders cycle between elevated, depressed, irritable and mixed moods. Children who suffer psychological trauma learn how to disconnect, avoid and escape feelings. Most children are born with the ability to experience emotions correctly

2.   Correctly imagine how others feel. Some children know how they feel but cannot observe and imagine how other people feel. There are actually brain cells called “mirror neurons” that give people the ability to feel and sense what other people experience. Children with autistic spectrum disorders may have damaged or fewer mirror neurons. Children who have been traumatized do not fully develop their ability to imagine how others feel. Most children not only have the ability but improve on this ability when they are raised correctly and in a positive manner.

3.   Understand emotions. There are reasons why people feel the way they do. Like primary colors, there are 4 primary emotions; mad, sad, glad and scared. These emotions allow us to understand each other and what is important in life. For example, brothers have a common sadness when the mother they love dies. Children become very confused when they feel emotions and see emotional behaviors that don’t make sense. Parents, family and friends teach children the meaning and reason we feel the way we do. In a functional family, children will learn how and why people feel the way they do.

4.   Manage our emotions. Learning to manage our emotions is more difficult than escaping and avoiding them. Escape and avoidance leads to addiction, reactivity and bad habits. To manage their emotions, children must learn how to calm their body and to tolerate their feelings while they learn from them. A child’s emotional control weakens if always they give their emotions immediate control over their thoughts, words and actions. Parent who confront children repeatedly for “problem” behavior will soon discover that their child will either disconnect from their feelings or begin to act out their feelings in impulsive, thoughtless or destructive ways. Keep in mind that even the worst children are great over 80% of the time.

5.   Use our emotions to shape our thoughts and actions. Emotions are healthy when they provide information and inspire us. They become problems when they start to rule a child’s behavior and control others. Healthy children can feel an emotion, describe it, understand, share it and use this information to guide their thinking and actions. Emotions are something that children need to learn how to use rather than allow their emotions to push and drag their behavior

Children feel better and need to learn how feelings can guide decisions and lead to a more engaged, meaningful and rewarding life. Children will feel less alone and recover from “upsets” if they safely share unpleasant experiences and emotions. Children feel better and gain self-confidence when they can share challenging experiences and positive emotion consequences.

Teaching Emotional Skills

So how can parents increase their child’s emotional intelligence as well as their ability manage and regulate their emotions?

The first good way it is be a good example. Admit what you feel and what your behavior demonstrates. In other words, don’t act angry, irritable, sad or afraid and tell your child you aren’t. If you are too upset at the time, or don’t know how you feel, tell you child later when you are not so upset. While you should not burden your child with adult problems, it can help if they understand what feeling they see and discover that it is o.k. to talk about it. Be sure to tell you child how you feel when you are feeling better and tell them why. Good examples of “why” include (1) just accepting your feelings, (2) talking with people who understand, (3) taking care of yourself, (4) giving it time and (5) finding a solution.

The second good way is to help your child talk about their feelings. There are 5 questions that can help them open up.

What happened?  How do you feel? Why do you think you feel (or someone else feels) that way? What do you want to happen? How can I help?

Don’t pressure your child to answer these questions all at once. In fact you can raise these questions over time. It can take time for a child to discover an answer.

 The important part when asking your child a question is to help them think and feel their way through their feelings. Remember, there are no good or bad feelings. A feeling is physically felt. It is not an opinion. Thoughts are expressed in decisions and opinions. To say “I feel you are mean” is an opinion. To say that you are sad, angry, afraid or glad is a feeling. It is physically felt.

 We are judged by our actions, words and deeds. How we feel is something we can’t always help. Children can be angry and decide to forgive. They can be afraid and learn to be brave or cautious. People almost always feel better when they can identify and express their feelings without judgment by others. Their sense of identity comes from their decisions and actions.

Dr. Conner is a psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. Dr. Conner's practice includes clinical, medical and family psychology. He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention, and Emergency School Response. This article is also available at www.CrisisCounseling.Com. Dr. Conner’s practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660

Copyright 2008, Michael G. Conner