Jack and the Terrible Case of the Happies: The Self-Compassion Guide to Helping Children Honor Their Experience Despite Unrealistic Expectations from Loved Ones

Meeting Jack

 A young boy about 10 years old with the small eyes and puffy cheeks of someone much younger held onto a stack of slightly warped Uno cards with bent corners, as he sat down in my office. He was sobbing, his speech muffled by the sound of air rushing too quickly to his nose and mouth like the sound cheap plastic chairs with metal bottoms make when you drag them across the floor.  Watching Jack unsuccessfully remove nasal fluid with the back of his hand, I offered him a tissue.  He waved me off with the runny nose hand, accidentally flinging fluid that I dodged by bending at the waist and collapsing to my left side.  I nearly fell off the side of my chair.  Jack laughed, and his breathing started to become more regular.  He looked down at the ground, and told me that his teacher and Aunt Monica were upset with him for being an unhappy boy, an angry boy, a bad boy.

Aunt Monica was considering foster care.  She said that two years of anger issues were about all she could handle.  Jack blamed himself.  He admitted that he just was not happy enough. In truth, Jack worked very hard to be happy.  Before he left every morning, Aunt Monica would remind him to put on his happy face, and he would strain to lift the edges of his lips upward to form a tight, unnatural smile like that of a clown.  He said that it was not so bad, but sometimes his lips and cheeks would hurt by lunchtime. This smile took a toll on Jack, and when he was too stressed to manage it, he would purse his lips and lift his cheeks even higher.  Finally, this tension would be broken by what appeared to be a sudden outburst of anger.

While the anger symptoms seemed sudden, the anger, of course, had been building.  To keep all parties happy, Jack would try to appease every one.  The more difficult this was to do, the harder Jack tried to do it.  Trying to be happy did not chase Jack’s angry feelings away.  Suppressing his anger only made him angrier.  Anger is kind of an ornery guy, and when you try to suppress him, he blow himself up like a balloon until he POPS.  The surprising nature and strength of these outbursts upset Jack’s aunt and teachers.

If you ask a child therapist why a kid would have to try to be happy all the time, we will give you a range of possibilities.  The most likely of which is the fear of losing a caregiver or the helplessness made manifest by actually losing one.  Sadly for Jack, it was both.  His mother left when he was a baby, and his aunt was considering leaving now.

Jack’s Past

Jack’s mother was a sensitive woman, who liked taking pictures of flowers and birds, drinking coffee when it was still piping hot, and holding baby lambs at the petting zoo.  She liked to be invited out by friends, and on one of these nights met Jack’s father.  Their romance was short-lived.  When Jack was born, she tried for about 3 months to raise him, but with only a sister to support her, she folded.   One night while her sister was babysitting Jack, Jack’s mother snuck out the back window, and made it about 100 miles by hitching rides and using some spare money she kept in a ceramic duck bank.  After a brief stint marked by alcohol use and homelessness, she joined an exclusive religious group.

The aunt recalls a final phone call before her sister became deeply involved with the religious group.  According to the aunt, her sister had expressed responsibility for abandoning her son, and explained that this group was her chance to be forgiven and return home a worthy mom.  The words sounded scripted, and her voice sounded hollow. The phone call was over before the aunt could respond, but she remembers listlessly holding the phone to her face for several minutes after the conversation had ended.

So, the aunt raised Jack, who she recalls was a very sweet baby, but hard to calm when he would begin to cry.  Jack’s behavior started to become difficult to manage at age 8, and had only become more difficult with time.  When the aunt was frustrated, she would raise her voice, and offer 6 exasperated words: Why can’t you just be happy?  She wanted answers, but instead Jack would sob and respond with 6 sad words of his own: I don’t know.  I just can’t.

Without self-compassion resources, the process by which Jack became angry and his aunt became frustrated simply repeated itself.  Jack tried to be happy.  Jack got frustrated.  Jack tried even harder to be happy.  Jack had an angry outburst.  Jack was scorned and corrected by his teacher and aunt.  His aunt felt like a failure, and Jack felt bad and helpless.

Self-Compassion for Jack

In Self-Compassion terms, Jack suffers from a terrible case of the happies. Jack is compelled to be happy even when he is not.  He tries to be happy to placate his Aunt on the outside, and tries to be happy on the inside in hopes that his mom will come back.  Inevitably, Jack’s environment triggers emotions other than happiness. By masking these emotions with a smile and forced happiness, Jack is punishing himself. 

The more times Jack punishes himself, the more injured he gets until his body and mind have finally had enough.  Then, an angry outburst follows to protect Jack from further suffering.  The anger raises and then releases the tension Jack develops in trying to be happy all the time.  It also repels those in his external environment who might require continued happiness.  As a parent with few resources, these outbursts easily overwhelm Jack’s aunt.  His teachers, being responsible for so many other boys and girls, become quickly distressed by the potential of harm to the other children when Jack becomes angry.

To bring compassion to their experience, Jack and his aunt need to mourn the loss of Jack’s mom.  Jack needs to know that it is not his fault that his mother left, and his aunt needs to know that acknowledging this loss will not be her undoing.  Together, they could lighten their loads, and feel more empowered by noticing their suffering and bringing kindness to it.  The success they would experience in this shared suffering management could easily translate to tools that Jack could use in school to honor and manage his experience there as well.

SNAK- Sense, Name, Allow, and Kindness is one of my preferred tools for kids, who struggle to accept their experience because it is easy to remember and effective.  To help them remember, we associate feeling bad to our emotions needing a SNAK.  You begin by using your senses to notice suffering/discomfort when it comes up in your body or in your thoughts.  You name these feelings or thoughts with one or two words.  You allow or make space for the feeling to let yourself know that it is okay that it is there.  Then you do something really nice for yourself (kindness) as a reward for the hard work you’re your body and brain just did!

The more kids work with SNAK, the easier it becomes to use, and the more available it is when they are suffering.  With practice and easier access comes success and reward, which (like most things kids do) leads to more of it.

Final Thoughts

 There may be people in our lives that expect certain things from us to feel less stressed about their own life or our relationship.  Accept that is their experience, and acknowledge and bring kindness to your experience anyway.  Wish them freedom from suffering and kindness too.  People who expect us to stuff our feelings are often people who have good reasons for not being able to express their own feelings. Loving them does not preclude us from giving ourselves self-compassion.

In fact, the opposite is true.  Because we love them, we need to be even more accepting and kind to ourselves, so that we can both model and provide compassion to them.  If the relationship we have with them is purely defined by harm, then we need to cut ties with them to keep ourselves safe.  This also gives them the opportunity to develop a relationship with someone that might be more helpful in their quest towards the freedom to express and accept their feelings. 

To put it simply, no matter the situation, more self-compassion is the best response to suffering.  With that in mind, may you be free from suffering.  May you be free to experience and express your feelings, as they arise.  May this be an invitation to bring so much kindness into your life, and into the life of your children.  May this kindness serve as a reward for your efforts towards self-acceptance and well-being.

365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion.  Day 64.  In the Books.