Gratitude. Awkward silence. A shuffling of feet combined with avoiding eye contact. The expectation of a lengthy lecture from an adult about how unappreciative you are, how good you’ve got it, and how you have no idea what the real world is like.
This could be the word association created by an adolescent brain when the "G" word is mentioned by a significant adult in their life. And parents all over the Western world could be excused for the occasional heated diatribe – we all have our moments!
The quality of being grateful is gratitude. And gratefulness is currently a bit of a buzz word. You can buy a beautiful "gratefulness journal", which gives you prompts to elicit grateful thinking, and quotes to inspire thoughts on gratefulness, along with ample space allocated to record all of the things in your life to be grateful for. For a small percentage of the population, a specific journal like this might prove very helpful. However, for the rest of us mere mortals (parents in particular), the decision to start how we mean to continue is a realistic and achievable goal. Let’s keep things simple and manageable in our own lives, encouraging our adolescents to do the same: To do the basics well and the rest will come together, in time.
Perhaps for many parents out there, adolescents do not represent the highest percentile of grateful people within our society! However, I have definitely observed firsthand how enthusiastic and thankful teenagers can be when they want to. When it happens, it’s delightful to behold. So how do we cultivate gratitude within our teenagers and, more importantly, our families? Because, as we know, if we have individuals with a certain attitude, the atmosphere within the group(s) they are affiliated with will be affected. Families are a textbook example of how values grow from small attitudes being positively or negatively modelled.
Firstly, we will fight a losing battle if we come from the premise that gratitude is earned. If it is supposed to be earned, we would never in a weak moment pick the socks up off the floor and put them in the wash basket – not for one more soul on the planet. And if we stood around waiting for a “Thanks heaps, Mum! I forgot all about the fact that they’ve been lying there for days!”, we might start to grow roots under our feet. So it is with our teenagers. If they are looking to receive gratitude every time they do a good thing, they will be sorely disappointed.
Alternatively, if they show gratitude to someone, it should be out of a sense of appreciation on their part, not with the expectation that someone will always acknowledge their comment. There are times when we will show gratitude and we will be slapped down, mocked, or ignored. There are other times when we might get a smile in acknowledgement, or a verbal “Thanks!” That is a surprising bonus. Whichever scenario we find ourselves in, we should be showing gratitude because it comes out of a grateful heart, acknowledgement or not. We appreciate the effort someone has made for our benefit.
So how does this become a natural part of an adolescent’s thinking processes? Highlight to your children that their success in anything in life is always due to a team effort. Bring this up naturally and often. Yes, they may have worked very hard to get good marks for a homework assignment. You also, as their parent, have shown an interest in their work and offered suggestions. Their teacher has seen the effort and rewarded it with a good mark. They have learned good work ethics from their grandparents, who also support their progress.
Foster a "bigger-picture" view that lends itself to generous thinking towards others who journey through life with them. If they get this concept, they will have healthier relationships across the board. How many times have we heard comments from those in broken relationships along the lines of “They didn’t appreciate me.” Gratitude leads to generosity in other ways – with time, the showing of affection, gift-giving, and much more.
Verbalising/communicating gratitude: Remind them often, but without nagging. Not “You’d better remember…” but “Aunty put a lot of thought into what you would like… I know she’d love to hear how much you are enjoying it.” It is such a good habit to thank someone for what they have given, thoughtful or not. This can be a bitter pill for some kids, but a fantastic one for them to swallow anyway! A text of thanks can be okay occasionally, but as a general rule, a face-to-face or over-the-phone thank you works a treat.
Noticing little things is a fantastic way of encouraging your teenager to show gratitude. By you noticing that they’ve taken out the rubbish and then thanking them for it, they will feel good, not taken for granted. Yes, this is an expectation of yours that of course they will take out the rubbish. But they can still be appreciated for it. If they are not into public displays of appreciation, then even a wink, a positive nod directed their way, or flicking a quick text with a smiley face can be enough to do the trick.
Acknowledgment is everything, and most of the time it costs so little.
Rose Stanley has worked in schools for the past 8 years caring for children, firstly as a Student Support worker and most recently as a tutor through the Lifewalk Trust. She has just published three books to aid children with emotional literacy.