Teach Your Teen Gratitude This Thanksgiving

At first, gratitude might not sound like your usual mental health tool. It’s not necessarily a coping tool, and it’s not really a relaxation tool either. Yet, practicing gratitude (consciously feeling grateful for what you have in life) can in fact have an influence on a person’s state of mind.

Learn about Gratitude

It’s easy for teens today to get stuck in patterns of negative thinking. Because of their social and emotional needs, they give emphasis to the relationships they have with friends and peers. With this, teens might compare themselves to others and come to believe that they are not smart enough or cool enough compared to others at school. After awhile, teens might experience self-criticism or self-judgment.  These types of thoughts, along with other forms of negative thinking can create depression, anxiety, and loss of happiness in life. It can affect relationships and even academic performance.

Negativity can be difficult to change, but once it’s transformed to focusing on the positive, it can turn a teen’s life around. In fact, this is the benefit of practicing gratitude. It’s an opportunity for a teen to change their thoughts. It’s an opportunity to notice what might not otherwise be noticed or appreciated. Instead of wishing for what they don’t have (such as a different body shape or more friends at school), your teen might begin to feel grateful for what they already have in life (such as supportive friends, a loving family, and good grades).

Having a regular practice of feeling grateful can help a teen develop a new perspective, boost mental health, and improve relationships.  Below are some additional benefits of practicing gratitude.

Benefits of Gratitude

Feeling grateful for what you have and who you are can help grow feelings of appreciation. You and your teen might decide to practice gratitude on a regular basis. You might even encourage your teen to have a gratitude journal for a year and make notes on how their perspective and thinking changes over that year. For instance, over time, your teen might be struck with wonder about all that they have in life. They might develop a more positive attitude, feeling more capable and even joyful about their future. Here are some additional benefits of practicing gratitude:

Improved physical health. According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, those who are grateful tend to have fewer aches and pains in their body. They also tend to feel healthier than other people. Teens who are practicing gratitude on a regular basis might find that they are grateful for their body and who they are, even if they are different from their peers. Because of their appreciation for themselves, they might get the right amount of sleep, eat healthy foods, and take good care of themselves in general, all of which contributes to their physical health.

Improved psychological health. As already mentioned above, there are many psychological benefits to be gained by a regular practice of gratitude. Research shows that feeling grateful can actually reduce symptoms of depression as well as boost levels of happiness. According to researcher Robert A. Emmons, gratitude can strongly influence a person’s level of well being, especially if practiced on a regular basis. Gratitude can help a teen feel good about their life, who they are, and their skills and abilities. Gratitude can help a teen focus on the positive versus getting dragged down by negative thoughts or comments made by bullying teens.

Improved friendships. Sometimes, just by saying thank you a teen might open the door to a friendship they might not otherwise have. If your teen is saying thank you more often, not only during their gratitude practice, but also with others as a way to express kindness, your son or daughter is likely to garner friendships with other teens who tend to be positive.  Furthermore, gratitude can strengthen your teen’s ability to be empathetic (the ability to feel and understand the emotions of others), which in turn can reduce aggression and hostility.

Improved self-esteem. As already mentioned, a practice of gratitude can help a teen feel good about who they are. Research has shown that gratitude practice can reduce social comparisons. In fact, instead of comparing themselves to others, teens are more likely to appreciate the accomplishments of their peers and friends. Furthermore, in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, researchers found that a practice of gratitude helped to improve the self-image of athletes, which in turn contributed to their athletic performance.

Because there is much to be gained by a practice of gratitude, perhaps Thanksgiving is the right time to begin. This holiday has its roots in both religious and cultural traditions. However, it was originally celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest. Of course, having an abundance of crops helped communities thrive and there was much to feel grateful for during this time of year.

In the same way, this time of year can be used as an opportunity to give thanks for all of the events, successes, accomplishments, and rewards received during the year. It can also be a time to give thanks for all the people, places, and things that have entered your life and that of your teen. In fact, practicing gratitude at Thanksgiving can be a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. Yet, don’t limit your expressions of gratitude to once a year. Just like any practice, benefits will be gained when it’s done on a regular basis.

Build the Gratitude Muscle with Your Teen

In order to experience the benefits of gratitude, having a regular practice of feeling grateful is ideal. Just like going to the gym on a regular basis will help build muscles and lose weight, practicing gratitude on a regular basis is how you and your teen will experience its benefits.  And there are a few ways to do that. If you want to encourage your teen to develop a practice, you might consider practicing together. Or you might support your teen by making gratitude practice a part of their daily routine, perhaps right before bed or in the morning before school. Here are a few ways your teen might enjoy a practice of gratitude:

Journal. You might encourage your teen to journal on a regular basis. When your son or daughter writes out their thoughts and feelings (even the negative ones), it helps to release them or let them go. And doing so helps to create clarity and even positivity. By journaling out frustrations and concerns, your teen can create space in the mind for what’s positive and what they feel grateful for. Journaling also allows your teen to take an honest stock of their life and how their perceptions might change over time. For instance, last year your teen might have felt frustrated with you and your spouse for always limiting their independence. However, with a regular practice of gratitude, perhaps they’re feeling grateful for how you’ve been there for them more often than they think.

Make a gratitude list. A good way to help your teen shift their mood is to write down everything they are grateful for. Encourage them to write out all the facets of life they have an appreciation for. Write out what brings joy and happiness to their life. You might suggest that they make a list of the people who have helped them out in the past. They might also write down the places they’ve visited that have brought pleasant experiences. Anything your teen is grateful for can be written down in a gratitude journal or an ongoing list. Doing this regularly can inspire wellbeing in your teen’s life.

Write a thank you letter to someone who has supported you. Another way to help your teen step into a grateful mood is to have them think of someone who has provided them with assistance. Encourage them to write a letter or acknowledge them in some way. Have them write out what they did for your teen that has inspired appreciation.

Write a thank you letter to yourself. Although it sounds odd, teens might find great satisfaction in this. Because they are at a stage in life where they are exploring their identify and role in life, they might enjoy listing things they’ve done or said that has made a difference in their life. Perhaps they worked hard in Chemistry class (a class they were sure they were going to fail) and got a passing grade. Perhaps they wrote a letter to the local paper that got their school recognized for something special. This is a good way for your teen to acknowledge what they’ve done for themselves, something that has paid off or that has brought them some sort of satisfaction.

Staying Strong in Gratitude

As mentioned above, gratitude is like a muscle. When we use that muscle, it grows stronger and stronger. Over time, as your teen continues to practice gratitude on a regular basis, they are more likely to choose to stay in gratitude. For instance, teens might learn they have the power to change their thoughts, mood, and feelings with a simple choice. Although it might take some time to cultivate a different mood, gratitude builds resilience in teens which facilitates shifting from anger to appreciation, from sadness to happiness, from sorrow to joy.

Usually, making a shift in one’s emotions or mood requires awareness and the willingness to choose differently. Yet, if a teen is regularly stepping into gratitude, they will remain strong in their ability to change their thoughts and feelings toward the positive when needed. Sure, anyone can do this even without a practice of gratitude, but practicing gratitude teaches a teen that they can do this easily and it helps them remember to shift out of a negative state when they’re in one.

The self-help author Melody Beattie once wrote: Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. 

If you want to support your teen’s psychological and physical well being, begin a practice of gratitude with them this Thanksgiving.