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“You don’t have to overprotect them.” A Spanish psychologist gives the keys to raising happy childrenBy Flavia Tomaello

Happiness is talked about easily. It is on the podium of wishes. Every time a parent is asked about the future of their children, in all types of upbringings, social strata and ages, the following emerges: “May he be happy.” Silvia Álava Sordo, a doctor and graduate in Psychology born in Valladolid, but settled in Madrid more than two decades ago, has dedicated a large part of her work to this particular point. She has published seven books, and almost as a constant, an idea that runs through them appears in them: Why am I not happy?, We want them to grow up happy and We want happy children, are some of her titles.

But it is usually an abstract and volatile concept, which is constructed individually. Álava Sordo, in a exclusive talk con THE NATION, provides clarity to understand how to raise happy children.

–What is happiness?

–It is very important that we define very well what it is because society has confused the emotion of joy, which is a sensation that we all like to feel, it is pleasant and in which our energy rises, with happiness, which is not only feel that pleasant emotion of joy. When we talk about happiness we enter a state in which all emotions change. Both the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones. If to be happy you have to spend all day feeling joy, doing things that you like or that are fun, what is going to happen is that absolutely no one on the planet is going to be able to be happy. That is why it is important that we understand that happiness is a state where both kind and not-so-kind emotions will fit, and that we do not limit ourselves only to the hedonic part of doing things for pleasure and enjoyment. A very good issue and for which those spaces must be reserved. But we also work from the perspective of eudaimonic happiness, more related to personal growth, to feeling that we are capable of successfully resolving those situations in our daily lives.

–Is happy parenting compatible with the education of children and limits?

–We think that setting limits is not conditioned by happiness. As a psychologist, I work in a center in Madrid, and I like, at the end of the first session in which the adults in charge appear, without the children, to ask: what do you want to achieve for your son or daughter? The answer I always find the most is “to be happy.” What is the problem? Many of us are wrong in that thinking. And, for example, we flood them so that they have a lot of things. When there is no scientific evidence, no study that tells us that having more toys is going to make them happier. Or we are afraid to set limits on them. And it is quite the opposite, because the rules give them security, they give them confidence, they show them the path they have to follow. And furthermore, when we avoid overprotection, we will also make them safer, making them feel more capable of successfully carrying out their daily lives. That in the end will translate into our children being happier. By not setting limits, the most common thing is that they are much more unhappy.

–Could you give us some keys to protect family mental health inside the house?

–It is true that it seems that we talk a lot more now, especially since the pandemic. The Spanish Association of Pediatrics says that mental health problems in the child and adolescent population have increased by 47 percent. Families and even teachers have an active role in raising children and young people with mental health. For this it is important to see what we are doing, for example, we are allowing our emotions to vent, we are becoming that reference figure to whom we can tell and we also validate it, that is, not judging it, not telling it what it has to do. do. This would be one of the very important steps. They need us to be there to give them that emotional support, so that we can be a link of security. Those are mental health factors. It is also very important that we work with them and that they learn emotional intelligence skills. Let them be aware of perceiving the emotion they are feeling. Both from themselves and from others. And help them learn to express it correctly. I really like Quino and that phrase from Mafalda about life being beautiful, but difficult. We adults have to give tools and many of them are emotional intelligence.

–How much does the hyperconnected society affect our happiness?

–This is something quite interesting. Do screens really make us happier? Psychologists say that we have to be careful to be able to use screens correctly so that they do not interfere with our mental health. And they don’t do it in emotional well-being either. We are observing that when faced with a problem or an unpleasant emotion, they turn to the screens, because they are too afraid to look inside and see what is happening. They resort to something very easy to cover it up: the screen or social networks. It’s not a good idea, because in the end I’m not looking at what’s happening to me and I’m not facing the problem. In addition, they have an effect that enhances the social comparison that makes us unhappy. We get the feeling that our meals are not as delicious as the ones people post on the networks or that our life is not as interesting. And many times we forget that networks are made for appearances, that they are not reality and that it is the window where each person hangs the best version of themselves.

–How do we work on happiness in our adolescent children?

–Happiness begins to be worked on from a very young age. You cannot pretend not to do your homework and assume that everything will emerge in adolescence because there are many foundations that will not be well laid. It is always best to provide a lot of physical affection: kisses, cuddles, caresses, fostering security bonds. And with teenagers we have to continue working. During adolescence the brain reorganizes and reconfigures itself. And this process is super important because it allows it to be transformed into a more powerful organ to carry out operations and reasoning as complicated as those that an adult does. The process is done from back to front. The last area that finishes maturing is the prefrontal lobe, the front part of everything, which is precisely where emotions are regulated. That’s why I have to understand that the teenager I live with can have a hard time controlling and channeling them, because the part of the brain that feels emotions, the mesolimbic system, is very overactivated by all the production of hormones and that makes them feel everything. with a very high intensity. Understanding this we can avoid taking certain attitudes personally and understand if it is a real dimension event or if it is part of their maturation process. It is also time to encourage them to be with a group of peers, because at this stage personality is also configured. It is no longer done only through the family, which will still be present and alert, but through the peer group. I mean groups of flesh and blood. Friends with whom you can go out, take a walk, be in the park, share an activity.

–What mistakes do you think we make when working on happiness in parenting?

–Many, like overprotection, that misunderstanding of maternal or paternal love and saying: “oh, it doesn’t cost me anything…” With that attitude, a boy or girl is being created with few resources, with few skills. That’s not going to help you be happier. Or hyperstimulate them so that they barely have any free time. It is very good for them to play sports or learn or play musical instruments. But they can’t do everything at once. They need free time to play, because that way they will develop their executive function, the ability to orient themselves towards goals, to direct their own behavior. There are children who are so overstimulated, that they are always into adult things.

–Why do many people say they can’t be happy? What happens to us with happiness?

–We have believed many of the myths about happiness, which means living without problems. Being happy means that I have the tools to successfully solve my day-to-day situations. That when I have a complication, I focus on solving it. And when I am no longer capable because it is a problem that has no solution, I accept that situation and instead of putting my energy into trying to change something that can no longer be modified, I use it to regulate those unpleasant emotions that this situation generates in me. situation that I cannot change. Happiness is something that is within us. You don’t have to look for it outside. That it doesn’t have so much to do with the things we have or what we achieve. And that the emotion that is most related to happiness is serenity, not so much joy. And it is very difficult to be happy if we do not live aligned with our principles and our values.

–Some people prefer serenity to happiness. What do you think?

–They have understood well what happiness is. It has more to do with feeling that my life has meaning, that I find why I am here. If we understand happiness this way, of course the emotion with which we are going to feel most identified is that calm. This does not mean that we do not have to enhance pleasant emotions or that we do not have to do fun things. It is not like that at all.

–It is difficult to think about happiness when the demands are so many and we must fulfill many things

–It is true that it is complicated, because we live in a consumer society that urges us to have and show. It’s important to be able to stop and think about what I think is important to me. We do not live in a society in which, for example, it is easy to reconcile. It’s complicated. But the secret is to find small strategies to increase our emotional well-being, always trying to change the focus. With children we have to be careful with the expectations we place on them. You see many dads and moms who, instead of achieving fulfillment through themselves, try to do it through their children. We put an emotional backpack on them and a responsibility so great that they will not be able to manage it. Let’s give them the freedom to be as they are.

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