How Experiencing Joy Can Help Children and Promote Optimal Development

Joy is a powerful tool for solving childhood challenges and promoting brain health. Yet in our culture of doing, teaching, treating and pathologizing, too often we forget that when a child needs help, the first thing we should increase is joy.  This is certainly true in my own field, child psychology, in which we often prioritize theories, techniques and analyzing behaviors over being present and building joy-filled relationships.

The simple truth is that joyful connections with caregivers supports optimal emotional development.

I witness how stressed parents and kids are every day in my psychology practice.  I sit with parents feeling judged about their child’s behaviors or development, and I see how children are somehow sensing it. In our culture of achievement, test scores and compliance -based treatment and education models, the one thing that can truly help children seems like a well kept secret in education and mental health: prioritizing joyful interactions through relationships. 

Joy heals.

I urge parents and professionals to understand that joy is a tonic for human beings across the lifespan, no matter what the ailment, concern, or condition.  Instead of jumping into instruction, using formulaic methods for behaviors or even discussing things, we should remember how helpful it can be to connect not with words but with joy.

A few ways joy can help children:

Joy Reduces anxiety. An active feeling of anxiety is incompatible with joy, which gives children relief from the tension they may be holding in their mind or body.

Joy boosts learning.  Being in a calm state enables the most optimal “neural platform,” the state of mind in which a person can most effectively take in information.

Joy helps children to try new things. Stress inhibits exploration and creativity. When children feel happier, they step out of a self-protective mode, opening themselves to novel experiences.

—Joyful interactions with caring adults builds psychological resilience. Brain science is unequivocal about this. If there’s one thing you can do to help your child or the children you work with it’s this: experience joy with them.

So how can you help children experience more joy? Whether you’re a parent, healthcare provider, or caregiver, it’s important to find moments of self-compassion and stillness for yourself.  Kristen Neff, who studies self-compassion, has found numerous benefits for caregivers who understand the importance of treating yourself with the same kindness as you would a young child.  Taking care of your own needs truly benefits the children you love and care, helping you to “show up” in a new way.

In order to allow joy to bubble up, we need to allow ourselves to be present and undistracted for a child.  There are no shortcuts to offering the time and patience necessary to discover the joy that can arise in a given moment.  Recently, I was sitting with a child in a garden when suddenly a hummingbird appeared, sucking nectar from the blossoms. We sat together watching in quiet amazement and joy, switching from looking at the bird to each other’s smiling face.

To be sure, all of this is easier said than done. We are all overscheduled, overcommitted and running a race to be the best parent or worker we can be.  We will often fail at finding the space to be present with our children. That’s okay. What’s important is to give ourselves the opportunity to experience joy together, and savor the rush of good feelings—however fleeting—it brings to our relationships.

As a mother to a young adult on the spectrum shared in a popular New York Times post last year, …”in the end, success won’t be measured by academic performance or job placement. It will have more to do with accumulating small pleasures and filling your life with those. I don’t know why it never occurred to me: Your future should look like the best parts of your present”.

Laugh, sing, dance, run, jump. Snuggle a little longer.

Here’s to finding many opportunities for moments of joy every day. Let’s connect with our children in a new way and we will all be better for it. 

I share more about the healing power of relationships in Beyond Behaviors and Social and Emotional Development. 

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Thank you Mona for providing information, inspiration and specifics about the value of joy! We often think that things that are “good for us” are somewhat negative or hard to do. What a blessing it is to recognize the value of prioritizing joy for our kids, our families and ourselves!

Thank you Beth, and thank you for all the work you and your colleagues do to promote joy for children and families!