Can Parents Be Only as Happy as Their Least Happy Child?

Many people believe their own happiness should depend on their children’s.

Posted Aug 13, 2018

Please note that this discussion is based on the psychological, behavioral, emotional, academic, and social difficulties many children have. It is not to be extended to the horrendous circumstances in which a child is suffering from an incapacitating disability or a terminal illness.

Parenthood can be one of the most profoundly meaningful and joyful experiences a person can ever have. The immense, soul deep love a parent has for a child can make all other emotional bonds pale by comparison. But the emotional parental door swings both ways and just as the ineffable pleasure of parenthood can enrich one’s life beyond measure or description, the potential pains of parenthood can be more grievous than just about anything a person can ever suffer.

Indeed, it is often said, “A person can only be as happy as his or her least happy child.” While having an unhappy or suffering child will certainly have a significant impact on the general happiness and overall life satisfaction of an emotionally intact parent, does it follow that the above adage is necessarily true? Does a parent’s personal happiness depend largely on the emotional well-being of his or her children? It would seem the answer is “no.”

In fact, some people with happy kids are miserable themselves. Having happy, well-adjusted children is no sure fire insulation from the pain and suffering that life can inflict on people.  

Conversely, some people with miserable kids are generally happy themselves.  Obviously, a psychologically healthy person cannot completely sidestep the emotional impact of having an extremely unhappy or clinically depressed child.  But to say his or her personal happiness will be in some way absolutely limited by the emotional state of his or her child is incorrect.

For instance, a clinically depressed child will be much sadder than even a highly empathetic parent because typical, reactive unhappiness and sadness cannot be compared with the profound distress of major depression. For a better understanding of clinical depression, see this post:

Obviously, having happy, content, and thriving children can greatly enhance a parent’s personal happiness and life satisfaction. And having a morose, miserable, pessimistic or depressed child will certainly detract form one’s overall happiness. But the unfortunate circumstances of having even an extremely unhappy child will not necessarily set any absolute limit on an individual’s ability to derive enjoyment from life.

What’s more, because people are all unique individuals, the answer to just about any question concerning human psychology is “it depends.” Therefore, very few universal or absolute generalizations can be confidently applied to a specific person. I have seen parents with deeply suffering children successfully extract a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from their lives and people with very well adjusted, happy and successful kids who are miserable themselves.

So, can a person only be as happy as his or her least happy child?  It would seem the only correct answer is “it depends.” But generally speaking, “no.”

Remember:  Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.

To find therapists near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.