What Kids Need to Be Happy

Help your child with learning disabilities or ADHD develop optimism, self-esteem, and a playful sense of enthusiasm.

Edward Hollowell: Baseball in Mit
Edward Hollowell: Baseball in Mit

As parents, we want our children to be happy — and to grow into happy, successful adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD).

So we do our best to provide them with comfortable homes, fun toys, good clothes, memorable vacations, and other nice things. And we balance that by signing them up for lots of ADHD-friendly sports like swimming and other extracurricular activities, hoping to instill an appreciation of discipline and hard work.

There’s nothing wrong with nice things or with hard work in the classroom or on the playing field. Indeed, exercise is vital for kids.

But when we try to set the stage for lifelong happiness, we should remember what research has shown: that what matters most in encouraging good ADHD health is helping children develop happiness-promoting traits, such as optimism, self-esteem, and a playful sense of enthusiasm.

How do we do this? It’s easier than you might imagine. First and foremost, children need something I call “connection,” which they get in the form of unconditional love from adults.

[Free Resource: 10 Things NOT to Say to Your Child]

Connection gives children the confidence to try new things and to seek out new experiences. Once a child feels connected to important adults in his life, it is a short step to developing a can-do attitude.

Play and practice are two other ingredients of lifelong happiness. It’s been said that “the work of childhood is play” — and that is true. I’m not just talking about structured games and events. Children need time to engage in unstructured play, with others and on their own. Play hones the imagination and teaches problem-solving skills. It teaches children to tolerate frustration. And, of course, it is fun. Your keenest childhood memories probably involve playing. I know mine do. (When it comes to electronic play, however, it’s best to set limits. An hour or less a day of TV or computer games means there’s more time for experiences that are richer in imagination — and exercise.)

Children who play learn that doing something repeatedly helps them get better at it; in other words, that practice leads to mastery. (Did you learn to ride a bike on the first try?) Practice lets children learn to accept help and to benefit from good teachers and coaches. Mastering a skill begets confidence, leadership, initiative, and an enduring admiration for hard work.

Mastery usually leads to recognition from a larger group (friends and family), which, in turn, reinforces the sense of connection. We all know what happens when a child masters something new after long practice. We hear his cries of “I did it!” and “Wow.” Few feelings are better — for a child or his parent.

[Why ADHD Makes You Feel So Much]

Let me close by saying something about self-esteem. Some well-meaning parents seem to think that the way to boost our children’s self-esteem is to shower them with praise. Not so. Self-esteem is rooted in mastery. If you want your child to have high self-regard, do not go out of your way to offer praise. Instead, make sure your child has opportunities to develop mastery. If your child displays an aptitude for cooking, for example, invite him to plan a special family dinner and then help you in the kitchen.

Next time you find yourself wondering whether to sign your child up for yet another activity, take a deep breath. Some free time might be exactly what she needs to be happy — both now and after she grows up and leaves home.