Can you imagine if it were possible to stem the tide of increasing mental health problems in youth, just by adding a gratitude habit into our family life? Imagine if this simple, free, non-medical intervention could make the difference between plain sailing through the teen years and difficulties with teen problems such as addictions, eating disorders, anxiety and other maladies. There is reason to believe that it’s possible. Can we really afford not to try it?
GRATITUDE MAKES US HAPPY
It is well-documented that gratitude has a positive effect on mood and it helps to counter depression. Every book about happiness has a section on gratitude. This is not a coincidence. Scientific studies by Robert Emmons and others have shown that grateful people are happier, healthier, and have fewer episodes of depression. When we are being grateful, we access the loving part of ourselves— not the part that is constantly criticizing us and generally putting us down. Expressing gratitude anchors us in the present moment, which is the best place to be. Present awareness is the goal of mindfulness and meditation techniques, which have also been proven to be beneficial to mental health.
My niece, who suffers from anxiety, occasionally calls me when she is in the middle of a full-blown panic attack and my response is to tell her to look around her and find five things in her immediate environment to be grateful for. The shift of focus into the present moment, noticing the shapes of the shadows on the wall, being grateful for electricity, sound waves or the ability to connect using technology, pulls her out of her tailspin and allows her to breathe and recover. It is an effective technique.
I highly recommend starting a gratitude practice within your family, if you don’t already have one. When we are being grateful we can’t at the same time be moaning and complaining nor falling into negative ways of thinking. Parents that I have worked with, who have implemented gratitude practices with their children, report greater contentment, less whining, less jealousy, and a lesser sense of entitlement in their kids. These traits indicate a healthy mindset—better able to negotiate the teen years.
HOW TO DEVELOP A FAMILY GRATITUDE HABIT
There is no cookie cutter gratitude habit that will work for all families, so be creative and come up with your own unique version that fits your particular family. Parents sometimes ask if their children are likely to cooperate. I tell them that gratitude feels good, promotes calm, peace, happiness and present awareness, so even older children like the results and are likely to enjoy these sessions. You know them best, so if you think your child will be resistant, simply express your own gratitude while they are around and be sure to tell them whenever you are grateful to them for something they said or did or simply for being part of your life. Here are a few questions for you to consider:
- Bedtime – A gratitude habit at bedtime can significantly improve sleep – what a bonus!
- After school
- Dinner time
- Movie night
- While walking the dogs (my personal favorite!)
- Thanksgiving or other family occasions
- In the car between activities
- On the way to or from school
- In bed
- At the dinner table
- Around a campfire
- How many things should each person be grateful for?
- consider using categories: something beautiful; something kind that someone did; something I was happy I was able to do.
- Will there be some ritual around this?
- such as passing a feather or a “talking stick” (an appropriated First Nations tradition of passing a carved stick from person to person as each person shares a story or an opinion in a discussion), or lighting a candle, or putting a quarter in a box for each gratitude, or recording it on a piece of paper or in a journal?
- Will each person take a turn? Who goes first?
- I suggest having an adult go first to begin with to demonstrate how to be specific.
- Will this be one child with one parent or the whole family?
- How often?
- daily, weekly, yearly (birthdays, Thanksgiving etc.
- How will you begin:
- Will everyone begin with “I’m grateful for….”? Or is there some other phrase you’d prefer to use?
Other occasions could be at birthdays before blowing out the candles—each person tells the birthday child what they love about him or her, or at a weekly family dinner or in the car after a sports practice. It is a way of inviting closeness and connection and finding out more about each other in the process.
A FEW RECOMMENDATIONS
- Have an adult go first in order to demonstrate.
- Adopt your own gratitude habit—perhaps a journal—as always, we teach best by example.
- Be genuine. Children know when they are being manipulated.
- Be specific when giving examples to encourage a sense of wonder.
As the former principal of a supplementary school, I would ask students what they were grateful for. The answers were limited to some variation of “my family, my pets, the world, my health, and my friends.” They listed the things they thought I wanted to hear. However, I doubt that most of them were terrifically grateful to their parents on a morning on which they would rather have stayed in bed than been brought to an extra session of school.
BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE GRATEFUL FOR
I would always offer my own gratitude, which I would make very specific and detailed. At one of our evening classes I had to drive across the bridge from Vancouver to Richmond, and in the winter, there would often be a magnificent sunset. Then I would offer gratitude “for the orange tones of the sunset contrasting with the black silhouette of the mountains, or “the pattern of clouds that were tinged by the colors of the sunset.” By demonstrating specific gratitude in this way, I encouraged them to observe their world more closely.
By being specific with our gratitude, we focus our attention on the beauty of the world around us, on good people and kind acts. That focus keeps us present, grateful and happy and it helps our children to maintain their sense of wonder.
Gradually, the students began to offer specific things that they were grateful for; “the sunlight on the trees,” “the smell of the flowers in the garden,” “good things to eat,” “smiles,” and our rounds of gratitude would go on for a long time! This practice helped them to notice all the amazing things in the world and it changed their perception from one of entitlement to one of abundance.
Anne Andrew, PhDis a proactive parenting coach with a blog at www.anneandrew.com. She spent twenty years working as a school principal at Temple Sholom in Vancouver, Canada. Her book What They Don’t Teach in Prenatal Class: The Key to Raising Trouble Free Kids and Teens will be available in January 2019. When not leading parenting workshops or facilitating Choose Again healing circles, Anne can be found at the park with her granddaughter. She lives in Vancouver with her husband.