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People show gratitude to healthcare workers in Ontario.
Photograph by f:nalinframe / Alamy

Building an attitude of gratitude in children

Here’s why grateful kids deal better with challenges—including this entire year

The year started with so much promise. But by April, few people were feeling many reasons to be grateful.

Job layoffs upset travel plans. Health concerns upended those New Year’s resolutions. Kids and parents became shut-ins. And now a winter surge of COVID-19 infections threatens to ruin everything from birthday party plans to holiday traditions.

It’s enough to make anyone—especially children—feel hopeless. But experts say teaching kids to have a gratitude mindset can help them weather this challenge and any still to come.

“Gratitude is like a secret ingredient to happiness, or a superpower to foster positive feelings,” says pediatrician Hina Talib, who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital in Montefiore, New York. “There has never been a more important time for youth to practice flexing their gratitude muscles.”

The rewards go far beyond that momentary feel-good emotion. Experts say grateful people tend to be more resilient, empathetic, and compassionate.

“Expressing gratitude releases oxytocin in the brain, which promotes a feeling of empathy, calmness, trust, and a sense of safety,” says author and parent coach Elaine Uskoski. Plus, “having the ability to look for a positive perspective during trying times gives a child an opportunity to control their emotional response. A child will then be less likely to experience fear, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness.”

According to Andrea Hussong, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, these social and cognitive benefits of gratitude may be why youth who experience more moments of gratitude report less depression, more satisfying relationships, and greater life satisfaction.

Ready to build an attitude of gratitude in your child? Here’s how experts suggest you do it.

Help kids show genuine appreciation

Your mom had the right idea when she forced you to write thank-you notes to Aunt Audrey for the sweater you hated. But the bigger idea is to get kids to express gratitude from a place of genuine appreciation.

In a recent study she conducted, Hussong found that gratitude was genuine when it accomplished four key goals:

• If expressing gratitude helped children notice desirable gifts, including things they already have, experiences, and relationships

• If it helped them think about why they received these gifts, what it took for someone to give it to them, or what led to them receiving the gift

• If it connected their positive feelings about gifts with the people and experiences behind those gifts

• If it encouraged genuine acts of appreciation toward givers

Working through all four goals will help your child express heartfelt and honest gratitude and gain those physical and emotional benefits. So for instance, your child could notice that the sweater from Aunt Audrey has butterflies, which she knows your kid likes; think about the fact that Aunt Audrey took the time to pick a personal gift; note how great it is to feel special enough to get that kind of attention; then take the time to call or write to thank her for the gift. All that works toward creating genuine gratitude, Hussong explains.

That doesn’t mean your child has to be happy about the sweater. Uskoski suggests giving kids a moment to express their disappointment before moving on to the gratitude training. “It’s OK to feel sad or angry at the loss, and it’s important for a parent to allow a child to express these emotions and acknowledge them,” she says. “Only then can the discussion of gratitude begin.”

Model gratitude

Parents who have trained themselves to express their own gratitude will likely see kids do the same. It can be as simple as sharing what they’re looking forward to each morning or vocalizing why they’re leaving a card for the mail carrier.

Moms and dads can also reinforce gratitude by positively pivoting when something doesn’t quite go as planned. Raining on the day of your family picnic? Try an indoor food fest instead. Last-minute teacher swap with someone your child doesn’t know yet? Recast it as an opportunity to connect with someone new. (Maybe this one likes Star Wars, too!) Uskoski says that when things go wrong—and they always will—a grateful child will be able to see what’s still right.

“Within these conversations, it’s important to discuss that children may not like certain weather conditions, or they won’t always get the teacher they hoped for,” she says. “But they can learn to adapt and be still be grateful for things like nature’s gifts, food on the table, and education.”

Acknowledge your child’s gratitude

If you see your kid doing something nice for a pal, call it out. But keep the conversation going. “Conversations are also a powerful tool,” Hussong says. “Parents can ask what children noticed, felt, thought, and did in moments when the child moved beyond a polite ‘thank-you’ to deeper appreciation.”

When an opportunity is missed, talk about that, too. That can help parents understand any barriers to gratitude that a child needs to overcome. “Parents may offer children other ways of seeing these moments and helping them learn skills in these challenging situations,” Hussong adds.

Practice pay-it-forward gratitude

Expressing gratitude through a pay-it-forward approach can help a child grow into a better community member, one who cares about others and wants them to have the same experiences the kid is grateful for. That’s something Hussong calls “virtuous gratitude.”

“It requires us to express deep appreciation in ways that go beyond saying ‘thank you’ to someone who gifts us something,” she says. Kids might contribute to the food bank because they’re grateful to have access to healthy food, even if they’ve never needed food bank services; or they might pick up trash at the local park because they’re grateful that spaces like that exists in their community—a feeling inspired by a hike they took while on vacation.

“Whether the issue is social injustice, climate change, or the pandemic, how we connect with others, understand others, and support others is how we cultivate communities that protect and nurture ourselves,” Hussong says. “Those connections are at the heart of why gratitude matters.”

Build gratitude routines

Journaling and meditation are both great options for helping kids identify and express what they’re grateful for, Talib says. For older children, she recommends a “three good things” approach.

“Every night, write down three things that went well, made you smile, or you were grateful for that day,” Talib says. “Note a few details and how it made you feel.”

Keep it simple, but make sure your child is writing it down—not just thinking about it, she says. The practice can show results within a week: Talib says that studies show that you can get two percent happier in a week, five percent in a month, and nine percent in six months from this process. (Get tips to help kids start journaling.)

Younger kids can try filling a gratitude jar with tokens or little notes as a visual reminder of practicing gratitude. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that the routine is something that your child is on board with. If they like doing it, they’ll be more likely to stick with it.

Then keep talking about what they’re doing. “Listen carefully to show them you care—about gratitude and them,” Hussong says. “Because in the end, gratitude is meant to connect us, and when parents connect with their child, gratitude is sure to follow.”