The Road to Happiness

As parents, we all want our kids to be happy, healthy and strong. But as they grow up, they can definitely hit a few grumpy bumps along the road.


I’m a mom to a young son, and I know that even if your little kids’ moods are pretty steady overall, there are always unexpected moments where minor moans and groans can turn into major catastrophes. I read a great piece in FamilyFun magazine this past spring that has really stuck with me about “Steering Clear of Grumpiness.” Written by Pittsburgh-based mom Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, the piece talks about how she used her imagination and her son’s favorite things to navigate his bad moods and instilled in him tools that he could use to lift his own spirits when he’s feeling down, which would unexpectedly also totally change her family’s whole way of thinking.


Elizabeth decided she needed to do something about her son Dylan’s moodiness when his ability to put a negative spin on every situation started to make him consistently miserable and also began to disrupt their quality family time, causing she and her husband to feel they had to walk “on eggshells” so as not to cause an emotional explosion. As she said, it bothered her the most that unhappiness was becoming a real “habit” for him and not just a fleeting moment that all of us have from time to time. First, she consulted her pediatrician, who told her that 4-year olds have a particularly difficult time making sense of and dealing with their emotions. Pediatricians used to believe that allowing kids to vent anger by hitting pillows, etc. could help channel some of the bad energy. But her son’s doctor said this just made things worse, and that she and her husband should teach him ways to calm himself down:  listening to soothing music (Elizabeth actually mentions that Dylan particularly likes Enya’s Shepherd Moons) or sitting in a favorite rocking chair quietly.


Still, after Dylan had a particularly huge melt-down at a local store, Elizabeth decided that she needed to come up with some other solutions that could help him learn how to stay positive long term, would make sense to him and could be an on-going strategy that would make him – and everyone in the family! –  get a better handle on his feelings. In a moment of frustration, she thought to herself, “We’re on a highway to hell,” which suddenly made her realize she could just as easily put their family on a “road to success.” And she came up with an idea to start involving putting together a story about some of her son’s favorite things:  cars; trucks and other vehicles. As she said, “I jotted down a few ideas, and during a quiet moment the next day I decided to share my made-up tale with him … I told him about a little boy driving a car down a road. When the little boy got angry, shouted, or hit his brothers, the road got bumpy and grumpy and was not fun to drive at all. But when the little boy took a deep breath, said he was sorry, and asked his mom or dad for help with a problem, the road was smooth and fast and lots of fun to drive on.”


Because Dylan liked the story, Elizabeth decided to try it out in the moments when his frustration started to boil to the surface. She would remind him of the story, ask him which type of road he wanted to drive on, then reiterate that he was in the driver’s seat, giving him control of the situation and a clear choice about how to act. While both she and her husband were skeptical that the story would work during the most challenging, heated moments, every time they brought it up, it gave them all a moment to step back and think. They talked to him about how sometimes cars need to stop at a red light to take a break, and sometimes people get lost while driving and need to stop and ask for directions. Then, they explained to him how sometimes when you’re headed down a bumpy road, you need to stop for a minute. And sometimes, when you need help, you need to find someone who loves you to help you get back on a happy road.


Something remarkable Elizabeth noticed is that by sticking with the story and repeating it during both calm and heated moments, the ideas behind it managed to really click with Dylan and created a very powerful metaphor that eventually became important to their whole family. During times when she lost her cool, Dylan would ask her the same questions about which road she wanted to be on:  “He believed in his ability to control his reactions and wanted to help me achieve that, too …  When one of us is struggling and brings up the bumpy, grumpy road, it lets the others know we’re not at our best, and it serves as a subtle request for support and patience as we try to get back to a smoother path.” So, the story helps her and her family share their feelings and gather strength to re-route emotions onto a more positive path.


So, how do you soothe your kids (and yourselves!) when you come up against a case of the “grumpies”? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments section! Also, please take a moment to listen to our song, “Mac & Cheese,” below, dedicated to some of life’s grouchier moments!