Beyond “thank you” — Teens and Gratitude

By Cheryl Somers, MA, LPC

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy

Gratitude. It is such a simple concept. Be grateful for what you have and show appreciation for others. Most people agree that being thankful and expressing appreciation are essential to living a happy life.  We even have a national holiday this month devoted entirely to being Thankful.

It comes as no surprise, then, that research has shown people who are more thankful tend to feel more fulfilled. In fact, a recent study (Ng et al, 2012) found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and with lower anxiety and depression. Another study conducted by researchers at Hofstra University, found that grateful teens are also more likely to have higher grades, less envy and more friends than their less grateful peers.

It all makes sense, so the question becomes how do you instill a sense of gratitude in your teen? How do you teach a teenager to be grateful for what they have and show appreciation for those around them? Teens are notorious for being self-absorbed. In fact, developmentally speaking, teens are supposed to be self-absorbed. They are in the stage of development known as Identity Formation. They spend much of their time trying to figure out who they are, what they believe, how they are perceived, what they value and who they want to become. The job of parents is to help guide and support their teen through this process. And learning to embrace gratitude can help.

Gratitude is a learned skill. When our children are toddlers we teach them to always say “please” and “thank you”. When they have birthday parties, we remind them after every gift, “What do you say??” And when they party is over we require them to sit down and write thank you notes.

Teaching and modeling gratitude to teens requires that same level of intentionality, repetition and practice. Gratitude is a habit. Just as we did when our children were younger, as parents we must practice and model the kind of gratitude we want our teens to embrace.

Model gratitude at every opportunity. Let your teen catch you being thankful. If you’re feeling grateful for a beautiful, sunny day….say it! When someone holds a door for you or you experience excellent customer service, let your teen see you being thankful. Pay attention to the good things in your life, and let your teen know how grateful you are.

Show appreciation for your teen. So often parents get so focused on the things that aren’t being done – the room is messy, the dishes didn’t get washed, a homework assignment is missing – that we forget to acknowledge all of the things that are going well. Remember to say “thank you” when your teen helps his little sister with her homework. Or “I really appreciate that” when your teen remembers to hang up her coat and her backpack after school. Catch them doing the right thing and remind them how much you appreciate their effort.

Be flexible in your expectations. Expressions of gratitude are less obvious and less concrete from teens than what we see from younger kids. They might not always say “thank you” or “I appreciate you”, but pay attention to other ways they might be showing it. They might demonstrate lots of appreciation through their actions, even if they are uncomfortable saying, “I feel grateful.” Be sure to acknowledge their efforts.

Encourage service. Many families have traditions of service, particularly at this time of year. Allow your teen to be part of the planning. Let them help choose an organization or plan a service event to do as a family.

Make gratitude a daily habit. Whether it’s a gratitude journal or saying grace at the dinner table, make it a daily habit to express your gratitude. When kids are little, parents are very good at daily routines. Think about the bedtime routine of a toddler. A warm bath, story time, a few lullabies and a goodnight kiss. The child falls asleep feeling loved and appreciated. Don’t we want our teens to feel the same? They may not want us to sing to them anymore, but parents can find new habits and routines that show appreciation and create connection.

Try this with your teen and see what an impact gratitude can have on your relationship: start a new bedtime routine that includes saying “I love you. I appreciate you. I’m so thankful I get to be your mom (or dad).”

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