The feeling of gratitude can have huge benefits for your child's mental health. Gratitude is typically associated with optimism, a more positive sense of well being and even increased happiness.
"Though gratitude is a skill a child can learn, it's also much more than saying thank you and showing appreciation," says Celia Heppner, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠. "It's an internal experience."
"When we think about gratitude, we tend to think about behaviors, like saying thank you," says Dr. Heppner. "But on the experiential side, gratitude is being able to notice good deeds and things around you and feel thankful. The experience is more associated with positive outcomes than the behaviors."
Dr. Heppner says for parents it's a teaching journey, that takes time. Gratitude is an experience and teaching and encouraging a child to be thankful requires consistency. Dr. Heppner offers these tips to help your child practice gratitude.
1. Practice good manners with your child
Young children, especially below the age of 10, can be taught to be polite and say thank you. Parents may encourage children to say thanks or write thank you notes. However, these are just baby steps toward gratefulness. Experiencing and showing gratitude often doesn't happen until middle childhood.
"Your child saying, 'thank you' is positive, but often a thank you is more about being polite than learning how to have that internal experience of gratitude," says Dr. Heppner. "Those things are really good and important for children, but ultimately aren't the same as the emotional experience of gratitude."
2. Celebrate the small stuff
One of the biggest challenges children have in learning gratitude is simply noticing the positive things in their life for which they are thankful. You can help your child learn this skill.
"Research says simply writing three to five positive things that happened each day, has benefits," says Dr. Heppner. "Over a two-week period, one study found that this simple activity was associated with increased optimism, positive affect and satisfaction with day-to-day life in middle school students."
Even sitting at the dinner table and asking children to talk about the positive things that occurred that day or helping them get in the habit of writing in a gratitude journal each night before bed can raise their mindfulness of the good things in their lives.
3. Be a role model
As parents, modeling grateful behaviors sets an example for how a child can be grateful. Modeling gratitude is important throughout your child’s life but becomes even more essential as your child becomes a pre-teen.
Simply thanking someone in front of your child can be helpful, especially if you are specific about what you are thankful for. For instance, instead of simply thanking a friend for picking up your child from school, say something more concrete such as, "Thank you for picking up John. I feel so grateful to have friends like you who support me when I need help."
It is also important to mention what you are grateful for in front of your child, even if there is no one to thank.
"When we feel grateful for something that happens or something we have in our lives, we sometimes forget to talk out loud about the experience of being grateful," says Dr. Heppner. "It's like what we do around the table at Thanksgiving, saying thanks for our families, thanks for our health, thanks for our careers. Modeling that same gratitude for day-to-day things is helpful."
4. Let children earn privileges
Allowing children to earn privileges or save up to buy desired items can also help them learn gratitude, says Dr. Heppner.
"Gratitude builds upon other skills like delayed gratification and understanding value," says Dr. Heppner. "It's hard to feel grateful if you expect everything you want to be given to you immediately."
Your child can earn an allowance or privileges with age-appropriate chores or other activities. By rewarding your child's work, you can, over time, help your child appreciate the effort that went into the items he or she has earned.
5. Be patient
Finally, even if you use all the above tips, it might still seem like your child is not experiencing the full emotion of gratitude, and that's okay. Gratitude is a complex, internal experience, and your child's mind needs time and practice to develop the ability to feel it.
"You can see if you do something nice for a young child, they are happy in response," says Dr. Heppner, "but a deep sense of noticing good things around you and appreciating those things is more of a complex emotion."
As children enter the teen and young adult years, they should have gained skills that help them feel gratitude. For instance, they should be able to empathize with others and put themselves in other's shoes. Being able to take other's perspectives can help them spot the things in their life for which they are thankful.
Still, by following the tips above, you are setting a good foundation in raising a child with gratitude. As your child grows older, he or she will have the skills they need to fully feel gratitude and reap the positive benefits.
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