How Do Children Affect Their Parents’ Happiness?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people affect each other with their positivity or negativity.

That question presented itself with particular force this Saturday, because my five-year-old woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and by the end of the day, all four of us were in very crabby moods.

One of the big, persistent questions within happiness is: how do I maintain my emotional self-sufficiency while also staying very engaged with the people around me?
(Or, put another way, am I so shallow that a five-year-old’s whining can ruin my day?)

I’ve heard the saying, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” Now, one grumpy day isn’t the same thing as having a truly unhappy child. That would have a major, persistent influence on my happiness.

I’ve read research on how parents affect their children — in particular, how parents’ depression affects children. But I haven’t read much about how children affect their parents, and yet, from my own experience, I think it’s very significant. Ah, a new area to research.

What do you think? Does that happiness, or lack thereof, of your children make a big difference to you?

* I’m a big fan of the work of Daniel Pink, and I always find lots of interesting material on his blog, Dan Pink.

* If you’ve been waiting for your bookplate, replacements finally did arrive, and I’m almost caught up. Sorry about the delay! If you’d like a personalized, free bookplate to give as a holiday gift, let me know now, to get it mailed while there’s still plenty of time — or ask for one for yourself. Feel free to request as many as you like. Just email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Don’t forget to include your mailing address.

  • Laura

    Gretchen, I’ve often wondered the same thing, being the mother of three…because I know I’ve had days when one grumpy kid can set the whole family in a tail-spin. Fortunately, my kids have my sense of humor so when I get grumpy along with my “Oscar the Grouch” – one of the others usually does a great impression of me and breaks the bad mood.
    I’m a big fan of Daniel Pink, too, and lots of his ideas for business can easily apply to parenting =)
    Great blog!

  • I know, I have one perpetually unhappy grandchild. Things are always unfair, people are always picking on him, no one ever wants to do what he wants to do. It’s just exhausting and it must be so difficult to live in that unhappy little world. But I know he does take the joy out of the visits with our other three grandkids, who are all pleasant and happy little people. If he were my own child, I think I would be able to set him straight, but his parents seem to have a blind eye where this little “Eeyore” is concerned, so we all pay the price of his unhappiness.

    • Disgruntled by labeling.

      Whooooooaaaa with the Eeyore label, there, buckwheat. Especially after describing someone who “takes the joy out of visits.” Grrrrrrr.

    • Sarah

      My son is exactly as you describe, and we don’t ignore it. Most of my daily energy is spent working with my son to help him find an inner peace with himself. But some days are better than others and judgment is the last thing that is helpful. I often worry that from the outside we are viewed exactly as you wrote. It’s simply not the case. Support the parents. Find out what they are doing to work with their son, and offer to help. Just be there to listen if they need a loving ear. We are all doing the best that we can.

    • Phoenix1920

      If you possess the secret in how to change a person from living in his or her own little unhappy world, please share. I have somebody very dear to me who sounds like your grandson, but despite my best effort, I have had no success and have come to the conclusion that I have no ability to make somebody else happy–it must come from within that person. It is so easy to place blame on the parents, but the reality is, parents cannot control everything–particularly their children’s moods. Think of how much more difficult it must be for your own child to see his or her own son being so unhappy and not be able to change it.

    • Tigger

      Sounds like my adult sibling. My parent’s have the same response, they dealt with her the same way as your little Eeyore’s parents when she was younger. Now she is an unhappy grown-up. Everyone is against her, nothing is fair, everyone should do things for her blah, blah, blah…and my parents still treat her the same way, turn a blind eye. we’re all tired of it. It is really sad. It is a real shame when people choose that path.

  • Madison Woods

    My middle child was chronically unhappy from about 10 years old to 17. For that span of 7 years, my life was misery because there was nothing, it seemed, to make this child satisfied with life unless I’d win the lottery. THEN she might have smiled a few times. Then one day, she woke up and realized that there was something to life besides the latest, greatest fashions.

    Her constant unhappiness definitely influenced my life and made me feel very inadequate. It didn’t help that her father and my soon-to-be ex husband is/was/might always be chronically unhappy.

    Two chronically unhappy campers in a small house is infinitely tortuous. Life is much better these days, now that we only have occasional grumpy days.

  • I’ve struggled with this so much because my older daughter who is 8 has severe anxiety which leads to unpleasant behaviors including tantrums, whining, and such. It wears us all out and so recently I asked my therapist how to stop being so affected. He suggested to let her fears be hers – not mine, that if she chooses to behave in XYZ way, to make sure I only give one warning and then remove her from the family for time to herself – her room or something. Also, just to realize that her behavior does not mean I’m a bad mom, not to take responsibility for it and feel worried what others think. I’m supposed to try to be consistent and not results oriented. This rang true for me and I really think it’s helping everyone – my daughter included!

  • LivewithFlair

    Just today I asked my husband how to have some emotional boundaries with our moodiest daughter. I don’t want to have a bad day just because she’s having a bad day. She’s the one who says, “My love for you is like a tornado” I think we need to let each other have our bad moods, but we also need to realize the effect we have on one another. I’m still thinking.

  • It absolutely makes a difference to my wife and I. We have a five-year old, three-year old, and a 2-week old at the house. We are concerned with helping them learn, read, be healthy, have friends, be nice, etc. But one of the most important things we can teach them is how to be happy with their relationships, their body and their life. This emotional maturity will serve them in many ways throughout their life.

    We are doing this by teaching and modeling two key skills: how to respond positively and proportionally to life’s ups and downs (i.e. – they get to always choose how they feel about the day even if they can’t control what happens during the day) and to make good decisions that will lead to happiness-generating situations and people being in their life.

  • Karenlw

    I have three children of college age. One of my children has always been a very happy and positive person (her personality is very much like that of my father.)

    When I look at all of my relationships, the relationship that I have with her, and the one that I had with my father, are two of my strongest. I attribute this their happy attitudes.

    In my personal life as I make decisions regarding my dating life, I am reminded of how happy those two relationships make me. I am purposefully seeking men who have their optimistic and happy natures.

  • Jodie from Parent Wellbeing

    Gretchen – it’s social contagion at work. Our child’s emotional state can affect us as much as we can affect them. It’s a dynamic that can be difficult to manage. Managing yourself is the key but, as you say, can be difficult because all day whinging and general grumpiness can grind us down. I am, however, pretty amazed at how kids can generally get out of funk by distracting themselves with something else. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply to myself when I’m holding onto an emotion that is long past being useful!

  • kris

    I find the same dynamics in my urban classroom as are being described about the family dynamic. There are many days where the angriest, most defiant students in my room are able to drag me down, and I leave work feeling crabby. There is much to be said for separating ourselves emotionally from those with whom we interact daily: it is much easier said than done, however.

  • This is the most challenging part for parents. Trying to respond positively to kids whining would be hard but in the end we will be able to enjoy the fruits of this.

  • I have come across research that does explore the relationship between children and impact on parents happiness or life satisfaction. I read an article a couple of months ago, from memory it was well researched, credible and very real (I was nodding and chuckling as I read). I recall that this research discovered that there was a much limited return on your investment for every child after your second. I think the research came out of the UK. Forgive the sketchy details, I was reading during a weekend getaway at the beach a couple of months ago so was feeling very relaxed and in the moment.

    Our second child, from the time he was 2 to about 4 was often unhappy. If he woke up cranky, he stayed that way all day and often day after day. It was a downer. We have put that time behing us now and he is delightful at 5. Last week me to him “I am so happy that I kept you around, & it was touch and go there for a while, mate” and sealed it with a big kiss and cuddle.

  • Yes, this is very interesting. I certainly find myself following suit if I have a crabby child. It’s hard because I often feel responsible for their happiness. If I can’t make them happy…it affects me. Wow…I sure hope that doesn’t last forever.

    But you’re right having a bad day versus a chronically unhappy child are two very different things. We all have our bad days. But…I don’t know what I would do with a chronically unhappy child, yes that would certainly affect my own happiness.

  • Anonymous

    These comments are a reminder that having kids is like playing the lottery: no matter how careful, how loving, or how happy you are, you might have a child who simply lives in an unhappy, bleak world, and it WILL affect you as a parent. Despite your best efforts, and despite even the best efforts of counsellors and therapists, you may never be able to help that child feel happy, and that is very hard on the head.

  • I don’t know any research about how children happiness affect their parents but a couple of years ago I read an interesting study that showed that people with children were less happy than people without children in “objective” happiness measures but parents perceived that they were more happy than people without children. I don’t know how we can translate these results. If you think you’re happy, you’re happy and this is what matters. Human brains can synthesize happiness!

  • Absolutely, especially in the case of stepkids…..

    I raised two whose mother is “depressed” and they have “issues” as well….

    Stepkids can kill a relationship- try having stepkids with issues….I’ve been dealing with that for over 12 years. They are 20 & 21 and they still have issues at times…..

    Some days I feel like throwing in the towel, but then….

    Well you know- you hope they will grow up one day and you can relax 🙂

    • Ali

      I am glad to see a post about step-kids. I think this article today needs more information about blended families and happiness.
      Yes, it can kill a relationship.

  • Children’s moods definitely affect the mood of the house and everybody in it. I find that a moody teenager needs some form of acknowledgement, a kind of spoken awareness that they are in a bad mood and it will have a negative impact (if that’s what they want). It then helps to be non-reactive around them and try to project some positive emotion back at them. This isn’t at all easy and there are those occasions when it all goes haywire but it’s good to try.

  • I think of a family as a psychological ecosystem. In every relationship their is a dual exchange of energy, so following this model children DEFINITELY effect the happiness of their parents.

    The trick is a parent must have more emotional mastery than their children. Sure, they may get irritated or upset, but it is their job to control their reactions and shift the energy from “grumpy” to “happy.”

    Interesting thoughts Gretchen!

  • Nava Silton

    I think this relates strongly to evocative interactions. A child’s overall temperament or attitude on a particular day can definitely evoke different feelings in his/her parent. The parent can often react accordingly. Children may evoke certain feelings and reactions from parents just as parents may evoke cerain feelings and reactions from childre

  • Tamara Lea

    I think this is really interesting. To take this a bit further, I wanted to put it out there that I would be interested to see a post about the happiness of couples who never have children. Lots of theories out there…..

  • Daniel Gilbert provides some insight into research around whether children contribute to people’s happiness in his book Stumbling on Happiness. Here is a link to some of the discussion on the blog: <a href=";

    Seems having children doesn't actually contribute to happiness…sort of the opposite… or at least it seems marital satisfaction increases when kids either leave or aren't there ever….

    • This is very interesting to me as i have suffered from prolonged post-natal depression (3 and a half years) which has impacted severely on my husband and our marriage. Since starting to recover i have been acutely aware of the impact of both my mood on my son and his mood on me.

  • Breathejustbreathe

    Wow, does this post ever resound with my current life. My wonderful adult daughter has long-term problems with depression and attention deficit. To make life even more challenging, she also has a special-needs son. Her unhappiness affects me DRASTICALLY, partly because I know when she’s down, my grandson isn’t getting the extra attention he needs. I do so many things to stay positive: sing, do things with friends, exercise, regularly commune with nature, journal, eat healthy, etc. But when she calls me up and is having a bad day, I feel myself plummet into anguish, guilt (maybe I could have been a better mother so she wouldn’t have so many problems), and discouragement. I feel like her fragility makes it so hard for me to move forward with any regularity with my goals.

    • Melanie

      I absolutely can relate to what you said. I too have a 22 year old daughter who was diagnosed at 19 with clinical depression and severe anxiety. I am happy to say that after 3 different treatment programs, hospitalization, and out of state program, she came through on the other side. She just started grad school for her doctorate of psychology, and seems to be doing quite well! But, when she was at her lowest point, it definitely affected our family, and probably me worse than anyone. I have always been able to tell by her tone of voice on the phone, lack of phone calls, isolation, etc . when she is depressed, and it changes my mood completely. I was told once that I shouldn’t let it bother me, but the therapist who said that does not have children. Yes, I love my daughter, and yes, her depression, sadness, loneliness, etc. does affect me. How could it not? We want our children to be happy and productive. I too felt much guilt for a long time, but now I know that her problems are chemical and I did not cause them. Anyways, this is long winded, but bottom line is to just be there for your daughter, but take care of yourself too.

      • Breathejustbreathe

        Melanie, thanks so much for sharing this. It really helps.

      • Anonymous

        I understand too. One of my children (20’s) has suffered with depression for many years. So much of your story parallels ours, and your advice was right on the mark.

  • Sandy

    I think as parents we have a natural inclination to want the best for our children, this includes them being happy. However, I have found as they grow(my children our young adults now ages 18 and 20) that we need to let them experience life and all it’s ups and downs and to have some boundaries in regards to each others emotional well being. Of course I still want the best for my sons but I reel against the idea of being a helicopter parent who tries to swoop in and “fix” their problems to help them through whatever they may be going thru in order for them to always feel Ok, albeit happy.. I find it is selfish to want to do too much for our kids. It assuages our needs to feel good as parents but truly, growing up is about navigating ones own way in the world. I find this to be the hardest role of parenting. Being there to support our children but not being codependent in their lives.

    • Anonymous

      I think there is a range of “unhappy” that exists and therefore is being discussed in the comments. The range goes from normal ups and downs which we all must learn to deal with, to the often-unhappy child who may develop into more of a happy person, to the chronically down person, right to the clinically depressed child who, with or without the benefit of medical help, becomes a clinically depressed adult – and the role and involvement of parents is much different for each person on the continuum.

      • gretchenrubin

        YES. This is a VERY important point. There’s fleeting grumpiness, and
        there’s unhappiness, and then there’s depression — very different
        situations, requiring very different responses.

        • Sandy

          Indeed. I agree there is a vast difference in responses to different situations. I was speaking in general terms (barring depression, severe problems).

  • Really interesting post and yes, I think my child’s mood definitely influences mine and if they are having a bad day, I feel like I’m having a bad day too. As parents, I guess it is our responsibility to try to avoid that happening and to reverse the effect by being happy and doing happy-inducing activities with our children to try to increase their level of happiness. Not always easy though 🙂

  • hi, gretchen — oh, i’ve been hyper-aware lately of just how much my children’s happiness affects my own. my adhd 12yo daughter just began middle school, & i can tell you, the moment i see her facial expression as she approaches my vehicle at pickup time, my day can shift one way or the other. if she’s clearly stressed or overwhelmed, then i’ve either got to bolster myself for an afternoon/evening of riding the wave, or give in to fighting the current alongside her. & if she’s happy, then my day, whatever it was up to that point, just got better. i’m working on how not to engage so deeply with her emotional state, but it’s a real challenge for me.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think the question of how to maintain equanimity when someone close to you
      is feeling lousy is one of the most common and difficult problems in

  • Dabbitt2000

    I never knew true happiness until my first-born arrived. Now with three, I’m pleased to say they’re very happy and consequently so am I! So blessed.

  • Marci

    I swear going to parenting classes served the same purpose as therapy for me. As a child who was never allowed to have any “bad” feelings, imagine how floored I was when the teacher said, “It’s OK for your child to get angry. And it’s OK for you to get angry with your child.” Really? And this was the first I was learning this?

    So yes, it’s OK for your child to be grumpy/crabby/angry/sad. Those are real emotions and everybody has them. (Who knew?) But it’s not OK to hit/make the whole family miserable/bite etc.

    We learned how to help a child name his emotions and learn some coping skills. (And, hey, I learned some coping skills for me as well.) So when your child wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, help her sort out why she’s feeling crabby. Is she tired, hungry, thirsty? Does she need some alone time? Does she want some fun time with just mom or just dad (ie attention)? Ask “What will help you feel better?” (After a 13-year-old parenting journey, I have learned not to ask “What is WRONG?” as if to imply that the child did something bad.)

    Model the behavior you expect. When you’re short with your kids because you haven’t had enough sleep, apologize. Explain why you’re grumpy and what you’re going to do about it. “I need more sleep. I’m going to take a nap” (if you’re lucky) or “I’m going to bed earlier tonight.” Ask for extra patience or a hug or a reminder that you’re being mean for no reason.

    If you have Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) classes in your area, I highly recommend them. If your children are beyond “early childhood,” some areas offer “Parenting the School Age Child.” In our area, we can also call a parenting educator to get quick advice or a list of books/resources for a particular issue.

    My kids are older now, so the issues change a little. But I’m still reading parenting books (this might be the one topic about which I could read 500 books!)

    • Such great advice, marci. I love the replacement of “what’s wrong?” with “what will help you feel better?” – it takes the focus from the problem to the solution and also teaches the child to be proactive about taking actions to improve their own mood, rather than making someone else responsible. Thanks for the idea.

  • Liz

    Being affected by a child’s happiness (or lack thereof) makes perfect sense!

    In “A General Theory of Love” Thomas Lewis describes the neurobiology of emotions. Through the limbic system, we are hardwired to tune into the emotional and physiological states of those around us. Our well-being (not to mention the survival of the species) depends on our ability to correctly read and respond to these signals and adjust our behavior accordingly. They describe the situation described above as an example of ‘limbic resonance.’

    And while it certainly can be annoying to find that one grumpy person can bring a whole household down, on the other hand, it could be seen as a sign that you’re well connected and tuned in to your child.

    This subject was so interesting to me, I wrote a short series called, “This is Your Brain On Children” on my blog:

  • Anonymous

    I posted this below but thought it might be better in the main thread here:

    I think there is a range of “unhappy” that exists and therefore is being discussed in the comments. The range goes from normal ups and downs which we all must learn to deal with, to the often-unhappy child who may develop into more of a happy person, to the chronically down person, right to the clinically depressed child who, with or without the benefit of medical help, becomes a clinically depressed adult – and the role and involvement of parents is much different for each person on the continuum.

    • gretchenrubin

      I posted a response there, but it’s so important I will repeat myself too —
      this is VERY IMPORTANT POINT! Fleeting grumpiness, unhappiness, depression
      — very different, requiring very different responses.

  • Kathy

    One of the things I realized shortly after my son was born 36 years ago was that my connection with him was for life…not just for 18 or so years until he “grew up.” It was scary then, and it’s still scary. Everything that affects him, affects me in a way. When he got divorced, his dad and I felt the pain, too. Once, when my son was in college, I became aware of the fact that he was very good at unloading his bad feelings off on me through a phone call or a visit. I had to stop that, but it’s still hard not to take on his moods. Seems like I haven’t learned to let go, yet, even after all these years. Yup, a life time of connection…Who knew?

  • Parents aren’t perfect, we are people. Our children aren’t perfect, they are people. As people we will be affected by people around us and we will be more affected by the people that are closest to us and that meant the most to us.

    It makes a great deal of sense that children affect their parents happiness, whether positively or negatively. Though as parents it is our job to learn how to handle our emotions and how we react to our children.

    We can have a tremendous impact on our children over time as they see how we react to life’s stresses.

  • BerniceWood

    This is very interesting. I have general anxiety disorder as well as depression, that are somewhat under control. I also have a 17 year old who also has problems with anxiety. I asked my psychologist did I ‘make’ her this way, or was she born this way? His answer was “Yes”. Partly genetic, partly by growing up around it.
    Makes me feel a little guilty, but it took me til I was 40 or so to figure this out, if I can help her and support her NOW, she will maybe not have to suffer as I have.
    All I can do is model treating myself healthfully now.

    • Jessica

      I’m a young adult whose mother suffered from mild depression and around the time in our life when my brother and I were 17 we both suffered from depression as well. If anything i’m glad my mother had experience with it personally as it helped us recognize the symptoms and get help. Without her guidance I might have continued on wondering why I was so sad and “messed up”. I guess I’m just saying on a bright side, you will understand your child better than anyone ever could in this situation.

  • BerniceWood

    I forgot to mention I heard Dan Pink speak last month and I LOVE him too!

  • Chris

    I don’t even have children (though I hope to have some in a few years) but I am often wondering how the mood/behaviour of my child will affect me. I always thought that there is no “help” in case your child tends to be grumpy or even depressed, but I am so happy to read that there obviuosly is. And that it has a huge impact on your child if you try to model the behaviour you want to see in them. Thank you 🙂

  • I can tell by the number of comments that this is a hot issue. Many parents must be feeling the pain.

    My family has developed a coping mechanism. We laugh about it. Now, I know that laughing in the middle of a 5 year olds tantrum can backfire, but we have learned to make funny commentary “after the incident” to put it all in perspective. We do re-inactments, or come up with special terms for the melt down.

    For example, my daugther is a serious ballet dancer. She has maturity, dedication and self control, but the silliest things, like not being able to get a good bun in her hair can send her into a complete meltdown. We call it “becoming bun-done”. (instead of becoming un done, as in unglued).

    We have similar tactics for my son, and we have even allowed applied the process to ourselves as parents. For instance, when I am feeling “the edge” I warn them that “crazy mommy is coming” and I make my crazy mommy face. It usually gets us all laughing and diffuses the moment.

    Bottom line…humor works. It’s an instant happiness fix.

    Kim Bauer

  • Sue

    My girls are grown-up now (23 and 20). I think as parents in the modern world we are a bit obsessed with doing things *right*. I certainly always felt responsible in some way if my kids were miserable – either responsible for making them miserable, or responsible for making them feel better.

    There is a tendency to continue feeling that way now they are adults and more-or-less independent, but I’m working on letting go. Of course we always want to see our children happy and fulfilled, but it isn’t always up to us.

    My mum told me something she read once, that your children are only lent to you, to look after until they can take care of themselves.

  • Deborah

    Hi Gretchen, I am a huge fan of yours and read your blog every day! I actually posted a response to this post on my website today, The Calm I hope the suggestions will be helpful to you and your readers. Thanks so much for all your amazing work!!! Deborah

    • Deborah

      For some reason, my above post linked to another wonderful website for moms…my website is THANKS!

  • Nadia

    I have read several stats that say that most couples experience a dip in marital satisfaction when their kids hit the teenage years (the first dip is with the birth of the first child). I believe that has a lot to do with how difficult some teenagers can be. It can be hard to be happy and in a good mood in the wake of the sometimes moody, irascible temperament of some teenagers, coupled with some of the challenges that go with parenting them but then I also remember the tantrums from the younger years…so draining. I guess you have to remind yourself not to take it personally and to do your best to teach them to work out their bad temper/challenges constructively as best you can and try really hard to detach from their mood (still working on that). I mean we do our best with our kids but there is no guarantee how they will turn out. I have a chronically unhappy sibling whose moods completely control my parents, she is married with kids and has a really good life! My parents try to get me involved in her petty little dramas and try to guilt me into taking care of her and after too many years of it I now say sorry, love her but her bad mood and choice to get all upset over nothing is not my problem, you guys can but I’m not. I’m not sure how I would fare if it were my own child though.
    I do have another thought though, a question. Are there people out there who find that the energy of people rubs off on them? Negative, positive? I have an acquaintance, nice person who is very difficult to be around because she is so over the top nervous and fidgety that the air around her positively seems to vibrate. I have to spend enough time (holidays,special occasions, birthdays etc.) with her and honestly by the end of her visits my teeth are on edge and my shoulders are up around my ears. (Funny it is one of the things that makes my son crabby, her visits, he feels the energy too). It kind of puts a damper on my holidays. We do everything to make her feel at home. We are a calm, quiet family so her energy really changes the atmosphere of our home. Is this common? Is there anyone else out there who feels other people’s energy? Solutions anyone?

  • WR

    Hi Gretchen!

    I was wondering if you had put any thought into how to launch a happiness project for children?

    I have enjoyed your book, blog and emails so much, and really see a positive difference in my life. Unfortunately, though, my 3 children (4, 6 and 7) seem to be chronicly miserable. Life, no matter how good, just is never quite good enough. If we have chocolate cake for dessert, they inevitably cry and complain that their piece isn’t big enough; if we attend a fun birthday party, they focus on the absence of a goody bag; a typical saturday involves incessant whining and fighting, and just general misery. I know there are parenting issues sprinkled in with the problem — and I really try to learn and do everything I can to cause a change, including reviewing their nutrition, modeling a positive outlook, being fair and consistent with discipline, trying not to spoil and create a sense of entitlement (this is the hard one), etc., but honestly, as much as my husband and I genuinely focus on these efforts and try our best to model happiness in our home, nothing seems to make much of a difference.

    So, I’m thinking of launching a happiness project for each of them. I just wonder, can you really ever coax someone else into a happiness project when at its heart, a happiness project is really about self-analysis?

  • A lovely article! Another article about parenting and happiness that I recommend is