“You’re never happy anymore.” These words shook Rachel Macy Stafford. Her husband said them to her in a low, mournful voice. Her instinct was to deny it, but she knew deep down that he was right. Then she saw her six-year-old daughter, whose eyes were wide with worry. And Stafford realized that her daughter interpreted her anger and stress personally, creating a heavy burden on her young shoulders. Then she knew something had to change.
Never Happy Anymore
In her post on For Every Mom and her book, Only Love Today, Stafford reminisces about how happy her daughter has once been. And she knew how she became the anxious little girl picking her lip as she watched her mom stress and fume. Stafford describes how she based her happiness on external measures, like finishing tasks, being on time, plans going well, so she was always disappointed and upset. But that wasn’t the worst part of it.
“In the process of making my own life miserable, I’d funneled my unhappiness straight into my daughter’s once joyful heart and spirit. Her pain was a direct reflection of the expression I wore on my face,” she wrote.
Not only was she never happy anymore, her six-year-old couldn’t be either.
So Stafford made the decision to change. “I desperately wanted to bring a smile back to my daughter’s face. I knew I must bring it back to my own.”
“See Flowers, Not Weeds”
She began praying and taking small steps to be more optimistic and present. This included writing positive mantras and daily goals on sticky notes, like “only love today” and “see flowers, not weeds.” These quotes particularly helped her silence her negativity and found the good in everything.
Additionally, she shifted her goals from a checklist to immeasurable items like listening to others, laughing, loving, etc. With these in mind, she began to see the blessings in her life. “My eager-to-please, helpful older child looked different too. I saw her for who she was, not an annoyance or a bother, but a loving child with clever thoughts and ideas. For once, I could see all the things she was capable of doing—not perfectly, but good enough for today.”
One day, Stafford watched her daughter play in her garden. She looked so happy and at peace, that her mother took a picture and sent it to her parents. Their response made her cry.
“Thanks for this precious picture of our beautiful granddaughter. Over the last two years, we have seen a tremendous change in her. We no longer see a scared look in her eyes; she is less fearful about you being upset or impatient with her. She is much happier and more relaxed. She is thriving and growing into a content, creative, and nurturing person. We know for a fact the changes we see in her coincide with the changes we have also seen in you.”
Her mother’s negative emotions had been fueled into her, stunting her ability to thrive. It’s no secret that children are like sponges — they absorb everything — but Stafford learned firsthand how true this is. When parents are never happy anymore, their children can’t be either.
Kids Know When You’re Stressed
And they often internalize it. In a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers studied interactions between parents and children between seven and 11 years of age. They discovered that when parents tried to suppress their emotions, their kids had a physical reaction.
“We show that the response happens under the skin,” said Sara Waters, assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development and corresponding author of the study. “It shows what happens when we tell kids that we’re fine when we’re not. It comes from a good place; we don’t want to stress them out. But we may be doing the exact opposite.”
During their tests, they found that when parents who suppressed their emotions they and their children were less warm and engaged in their conversation.
“That makes sense for a parent distracted by trying to keep their stress hidden, but the kids very quickly changed their behavior to match the parent,” Waters said. “So if you’re stressed and just say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ that only makes you less available to your child. We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic.” 
Happy Mom, Happy Kids
Most interestingly, mothers transmitted their stress to their kids while fathers who suppressed their emotions did not have that effect.
“We think that fathers not transmitting their suppressed stress may be because, often, fathers tend to suppress their emotions around their children more than mothers do,” Waters said. “The kids have experience with their dad saying things are fine even when they’re not. But it was more abnormal for kids to see their mom suppressing their emotions and they reacted to that.”
So what should parents do? “Research shows that it’s more comforting for kids to have their feelings honored than just be told ‘It’s going to be fine,‘” Waters said.
So instead of trying to fix their problems, calmly listen to them and allow them to regulate their emotions on their own. And instead of trying to hide your stress, regulate your own emotions. This will teach the kids by example not to bury their feelings. Above all, try to create a calm and positive environment at home as Stafford did — by becoming calm and positive yourself.  Remember that “you’re never happy anymore” could apply to kids. The change has to start with their parents.
Keep Reading: Grandma’s Rules for Hanging Out the Laundry
- “The Day My Child Lost Her Joy—and What I Did to Revive It.” For Every Mom. Rachel Macy Stafford. January 28, 2019
- “Keep it to yourself? Parent emotion suppression influences physiological linkage and interaction behavior.” Washington State University. Sara F. Waters, Helena Rose Karnilowicz, Tessa V. West, Wendy Berry Mendes. April 23, 2020
- “How Parents’ Stress Can Hurt A Child, From The Inside Out.” Forbes. Alice G. Walton. July 25, 2012