What Gratitude Is – What It Isn’t – And How It Can Help Kids Cope

“It’s okay. Everything gets cancelled anyway.” This was my son’s response after we shared that we would be spending Thanksgiving week alone instead of driving to visit grandparents due to illness.

This was certainly an honest and heartbreaking response to a long string of traditions and activities modified to stay safe and healthy in the last year.

I nodded and shared, “Your brother pretty much summed it up yesterday when he said, ‘This sure is a time of up and down and all around, isn’t it?'” 

“Yes,” my oldest agreed. “Mostly down.”

“I understand buddy. This is really hard,” I responded. I knew from experience that as a family we would find things to look forward to and shift our attention to much-needed gratitude, laughter and joy in this modified holiday week off from school. But he wasn’t ready to hear that yet.

Children experiencing gratitude

The science of gratitude

We’ve been trained to think that being grateful and sad (or mad) can’t be experienced simultaneously. If we look to the science on gratitude though, it is clear that accepting each of these emotions helps us navigate challenges and cope with stress. In other words, gratitude isn’t the absence of anxiety, anger, sadness, or loss. It buffers us from their worst effects and can help us move through them.

Research shows that grateful people are healthier, happier, and more satisfied with their lives. They are more resilient after crisis and have a higher sense of self-worth. Grateful teens are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and less likely to have behavior problems at school. The list of benefits goes on and on.

We are just beginning to understand how this works on a neurological level. When people consciously practice gratitude, they likely…

  • Enjoy higher flows of dopamine (the neurotransmitter that we call “happy”).
  • Feel brighter and more alert, an effect correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (the “energizer”).
  • Have greater activity in the hypothalamus which influences metabolism and stress levels.

To sum it all up? Our brains appear to really benefit from giving thanks.

What gratitude is not

Let’s be clear that there are ways we can wield gratitude in ways that aren’t helpful at all. It can backfire if we think that gratitude rules out any painful emotions. It is also counterproductive if we invalidate another’s experience with calls for gratitude or positive thinking. For example, if I had immediately responded to my son’s sadness about our canceled plans with, “But at least you have us! Now that’s something to be grateful for!” this would negate his feelings. It’s important to note that insisting on only seeing the positives isn’t just annoying, it can be incredibly harmful. For a timely example, asking a Native child who is targeted by hurtful stereotypes or racist comments about Thanksgiving at school to only “see the good” in others without recognizing the injury or facilitating real repair is damaging.

If we try to force gratitude on our kids when they are in pain it actually undercuts their ability to name and handle their own feelings or identify the sources of harm. “Just be grateful!” doesn’t offer perspective. It shuts it down. A few other things that gratitude is not…

  • Instant or automatic
  • Good manners
  • Toxic positivity
  • Forced cheerfulness
  • A way to ignore or “skip” pain, stress, or mess
  • A replacement for therapy or medication if needed

Real gratitude is a practice

If gratitude isn’t any of those things, what is it? While most parents agree that gratitude is important, it is hard to pin down exactly what it looks like. The most obvious indicators are the words, “Thank you.” But according to Dr. Andrea Hussong of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it is helpful to differentiate gratitude from mere good manners.

In a talk at the Greater Good Gratitude Summit Dr. Hussong explained that gratitude is a process that unfolds over time in children. She shares a model of gratitude that has three ingredients:

  1. Awareness. Seeing and paying attention to the help, support, and gifts you have received. 
  2. Meaning making. What you think and feel about what you have received.
  3. Behavior. Your expression of gratitude.

Dr. Hussong has found that parents tend to focus a lot on encouraging actions that express gratitude, such as saying, “Thank you” while overlooking the importance of awareness and meaning making. Paying attention to the three ingredients can be helpful. For example, instead of saying, “You should be grateful that your brother helped you with your homework!” You might try:

  1. Awareness. “I noticed that your brother helped you with his homework even though he had his own to do.”
  2. Meaning making. “How do you feel now that you’ve gotten a little help on those tough problems?” 
  3. Behavior. “Do you want to let your brother know how helpful that was? How might you do that?”

Gratitude takes practice

Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring the hard stuff. As kids know or learn our real history, Thanksgiving itself is practice for holding pain and gratitude in the same space. This isn’t something kids learn in a single lesson. It isn’t something that they can pass or fail. Instead giving thanks lives right alongside feelings of anger, pain, worry, and sadness. It can also be light, fun, messy, and frequent. 

More than any single tradition or day, we can benefit greatly from practicing gratitude on a regular basis. In one study, students who kept gratitude journals even for a short period of time strengthened their overall resilience and became less vulnerable to everyday stresses and complaints like rashes and headaches. 

 It is about finding ways to deliberately and consistently build awareness and make meaning of the gifts in our lives. Here are some ideas:

Notice the good

    • Start a gratitude journal. Use it everyday. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be real.
    • Create a gratitude jar or box. Encourage everyone to write things down and drop it in the box. Pull something out when you need a boost.
    • Draw on your spiritual or cultural traditions that encourage noticing joys and gifts.
    • Start a gratitude ritual that allows kids to express things that have been hard and things that they are grateful for. Try, 
      • Rose: What I am grateful for about my day. 
      • Bud: What I want to work on or am looking forward to tomorrow. 
      • Thorn: A hard part of my day.
    • Try the practice of “active noticing” by Dr. Ellen Sanger
      • Notice five new things you appreciate about your child
      • Notice five new things about your partner or a friend
      • Go outside and look for three new things that feel good 
      • Notice two new things you like about your food

Make meaning

    • Pause and let in a positive experience, no matter how small. “I love petting the dog. I am going to just enjoy this.”
    • Draw on your spiritual or cultural traditions that encourage pause and reflection.
    • Savor a simple experience, “Doesn’t this water taste amazing after we were running around?”
    • Create your own family rituals that create space reflect on the people and systems that give us strength and joy.

Express gratitude

    • Encourage kids to find their very own heartfelt ways to express gratitude using art, making objects or food, in writing, or with words. It doesn’t have to look perfect, it just has to be real.
    • Practice using words, “It really mattered that you listened to me when I was sad. Thank you for being there.”
    • Give kids opportunities to express themselves. “Let’s call your Auntie and you can tell her that you tried her special recipe.”
    • Contribute energy and resources to projects or actions that address collective challenges or repair harm. “I am so grateful we have a warm home this winter. I want to work to ensure everyone has that.” or “Thank you for trusting me with your story. Now that I know better, I will do better.”