In psychology research, many health care professionals strongly agree that gratitude is consistent with increased happiness. Still, when everything seems to be going wrong, finding reasons to be thankful can feel elusive.
The traditional American celebration of Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a day when families and friends gather over a sumptuous feast to give thanks for the blessing we’ve received throughout the year. However, this year our thoughts are consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last eight months, our lives have been tossed about with disruption, loss, and fear, and now with no specific end in sight, how do we focus on gratitude? How especially, do we help our youth dig deep into their core to find reasons to be thankful?
For adults, it’s challenging but perhaps a bit easier. We benefit from past experiences to recall with appreciation; this helps to bolster our emotional stamina to focus on the good that offsets the negativity of what is. We’re grateful our families are safe, and if we’re fortunate, we have good health as well. But for kids, it’s more complicated because of their shortage of experiences. As they’re navigating a young life, they’ve not yet learned to pragmatically put things in perspective and see things in a more abstract way that isn’t about immediate gratification. Of course, we hope their limited past consists of happy childhood memories, but for the most part, their gratitude is for what occurs at the moment. Like a loving family, a test they passed, or perhaps a test they weren’t ready for, was canceled. Maybe they’re feeling accepted by their peers, got a new video game, received a college acceptance, or hung out with friends. Those are a few in-the-moment things kids are grateful to have. Still, this year, for some, much of those things haven’t happened, and even when it does – for example, getting into their choice college – uncertainty casts a shadow on the happy moment setting thankfulness on a slippery slope.
So the question is, how do we, the adults, help kids to navigate these obstacles? How do we encourage them to find gratitude without creating guilt and stress? Simply telling them, “look at how much you have, be thankful,” or making trite comments about how much worse off other people are, isn’t useful for anyone. In fact, doing so may lead to anxiety and depression, certainly not the outcome we want.
Some tips to assist your student:
Communication is key
As is the case with most issues, open, empathetic conversations are the best place to start. Acknowledge what your child is feeling. Agree with them that living through a pandemic stinks. They, we, are all affected, in a tailspin of swirling emotions. It’s a hardship the likes of which none of us have ever experienced, and having gratitude top of mind might not be their first inclination; it has to be consciously excavated from deep within.
Then it’s time to help them start digging. Offer suggestions of what they can be grateful for from their emotional perspective; allow the ideas to come from a place they can reference. Remind them about their excellent grades, a healthy family, friends they hang out with online that one day will again be in real-time, a favorite meal they recently enjoyed. As you offer options, more reasons will come to them that are genuine and not forced. Remind them they don’t need to focus on elaborate reasons to be thankful; small and mundane is fine. Saying something along the lines of “thankfully there was no line at the Starbucks drive up this morning” is enough to get the gratitude ball rolling.
Keep it light and meet them where they are
Yes, I know being cheerful right now might be as tricky as thankfulness, but it will help. If you say to your student with a lighthearted smile, “with classes online, we get to sleep later.” Or “hey, you beat the other players in that game,” it will go much further in jogging their internal thanks than judgmentally pointing out the fact they have food to eat when many other people don’t.
Lead by example
Think about what you’re grateful for; no doubt, the list will be long once you start to evaluate. Find a time to share, perhaps during dinner and be sure to include how grateful you are to be hosting your student, how much they’ve added to your life during these difficult times.
Keep a gratitude journal
When you wake up, before bed, or anytime during the day, jot down all the things you’re grateful for. When even the smallest things are written, all of a sudden, you’ll realize what you do have, even now at this difficult time, outweighs what you don’t have.
Say, “thank you”
Saying those two little words is another way to lead by example and serves to remind yourself too. Did you receive excellent customer service at a store? Did someone hold a door for you? Did your student tidy up their room? Even if it’s the other person’s responsibility to do what they did, when anything nice is accomplished, never forget to say “thank you.” It not only acknowledges positive behavior, but it motivates people to keep up the good work and do more. And, it just makes us all feel good.
Yes, right now, it’s hard to see the blue sky beyond the clouds and feel a genuine sense of thanks, but doing so will increase our joy, improve our mood, and may even increase our immunity. And it just simply feels good. Let’s all strive to be grateful every day, now and in the future when life goes back to a safe, calm normal.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.