A Joyful Heart Is Good Medicine
by Katharine Hill
Family dynamics matter to a child’s emotional wellbeing. Research has found that growing up in a nurturing, supportive and stable environment is a key factor in helping young people manage stress, develop resilience, build trust and navigate life’s challenges.
Creating a positive atmosphere doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it takes place in the context of the whole family dynamics, including in the midst of the cares and troubles of life. Research shows that parents who can create a sense of optimism in spite of major difficulties or setbacks are more likely to create an environment in the home where children can flourish.
We live in a house that was once in the countryside but is now in the heart of Bristol due to suburban sprawl. A few years ago, there was an unexpected knock at the door and two smiling older gentlemen greeted us. They told us they had lived in our house when they were growing up and delighted our children with tales of going down the lane (now the path to a school) to milk the cows and making butter in the kitchen by turning the handle on the milk churn. As they left, one of them made a remark that stayed with me ever since. He said, “This was always a happy house. Noisy, but full of children laughing.”
Looking back, I can think of many occasions when the atmosphere in our house was noisy—but in a “nuclear” rather than “nurturing” way. We all mess up, and no doubt all of us can think of times when we’ve lost the plot under stress. We’ve been too hard or too soft with our children; too controlling or too laid back. Sometimes we have simply not been present—physically or emotionally—when they needed us. But this is about the bigger picture, and if any of our offspring return to visit their childhood home in fifty years’ time, while they may remember moments of stress and sadness, I would be sad if they didn’t remember the noise of fun and laughter.
Psychologist John Bowlby’s research in the 1950s and 1960s into attachment has become key to understanding child development. Attachment is a deep and enduring bond that connects one person to another, and Bowlby showed that the development of this bond, even from the womb, is vital to a child’s emotional security. The most important principle of attachment theory is that for normal social and emotional development, young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver. This relationship—or lack of it—significantly impacts their whole lives. As parents or careers, when we respond to a baby’s need to be fed, comforted, kept, warm or stimulated, the baby learns that they are both loved and loveable.
The amazing thing is that the quality of this nurturing actually affects the physical development of the brain. Sobering pictures demonstrate the shockingly smaller and less developed regions of the brains of children who have suffered severe neglect compared to children who have been nurtured and loved. The implications are significant: children who were securely attached as infants tended to have good self-esteem, experience less depression and anxiety, and develop the ability to have happy, healthy and lasting relationships as adults.
The good news for us parents is that whether we are in the season of toddler tantrums or teenage traumas, and whether we are parenting together or alone, we are the biggest influence on our children’s lives. The family arena is where many of our children’s anxieties and fears will play out, but it is also the place where, as parents, we have the opportunity to sow in them the seeds of emotional resilience and wellbeing.
- Tell family stories. When we tell stories about who we are, it cements our sense of belonging, builds self-esteem and has a positive impact on emotional wellbeing. Tell (and re-tell) your children the story of how you met your partner, ask grandparents to tell stories about your and their childhoods, and talk with your children about their early years.
- Set up regular routines. Routines build emotional wellbeing and resilience in children because they create safety and security. While we don’t have to stick rigidly to a certain framework, consider the benefits to your family of routines such as set times for getting up, going to bed and meals.
- Laugh together. Fun and laughter can actually change our brain chemistry to positively influence our emotional wellbeing. Laughter enhances our intake of oxygen, increases the feel-good endorphins released in our brains, strengthens our immune systems, helps to reduce physical feelings of worry and stress, and improves our mood. Watch funny films together, share memes, and make up “inside” family jokes to build the sense of belonging to a group.
- Create family rituals. Develop family traditions—for example, movie nights on a Friday, pancakes on Christmas morning, always going camping on a particular bank holiday weekend, or special rituals and activities on birthdays. It doesn’t matter what the traditions are, but they are important to wellbeing because they reinforce belonging, identity and safety.
- Celebrate as a family as much as possible. It may seem obvious, but a happy family atmosphere engenders wellbeing. As a family, make it a habit to celebrate things both big and small—for example the first day of school, the start of the school holidays, getting a holiday job, finding something that was lost. The celebrations don’t have to be expensive—going to the park together, having an ice cream at a local spot, or having a no homework night can still be a special occasion.
Begin a family fun book in which you record the funny things your children said when they were young and the jokes or events that made you laugh. You could even insert their funny drawings and hilarious photos. Get it out and read it often.
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