Parents Should Teach Teens to be Grateful
Imagine the following scenario.
You just gave your daughter a birthday gift. She expresses enthusiasm and says “thank you.” But you’re left wondering: Is she truly grateful or is she just saying what she knows you want to hear? This is the type of question Andrea Hussong wrestles with as the Director of the Carolina Consortium on Human Development, a scientific research network that includes Duke University, Wake Forest University, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Hussong is a clinical psychologist and she focuses on health and well-being in families, with a special emphasis on raising grateful children. She’s also a mother of twin 14-year-old girls.
Allison Gilbert: How do scientists measure the amount of gratitude teens feel? Meaning, how can parents tell?
Andrea Hussong: We can tell in many ways. We can understand if they’re feeling positively about what they’ve been given. We can recognize if they have a sense that the gifts they’ve received are just that – gifts – and not objects they’ve earned. Also, we can measure gratitude if teens are able to take the giver’s perspective. Does your son or daughter recognize the thoughtfulness that went into a present he or she has received?
AG: What do tweens and teens tend to be grateful for?
AH: They’re grateful for a variety of things! But generally, younger children demonstrate gratitude for tangible items – ice cream, for example. When they get older, they’re grateful for more abstract things such as friendships and opportunities.
AG: Can parents help teenagers become more grateful?
AH: Yes, by modeling a grateful attitude and grateful behavior. You can vocalize your experiences receiving a gift. You can say out loud that you recognize the effort that went into getting that gift for you and you understand why the giver thought of it. Gratitude is more than manners, and it’s more than meeting social expectations and conforming to what society considers normal. It’s a deeper emotional experience that connects us to other people.
AG: Are there certain activities or times of day that promote gratefulness?
AH: Anytime you can have a conversation — during dinner, at bedtime, even when you’re traveling in the car. These are moments when you can ask children what they were grateful for that day.
AG: Does it matter how parents talk about gratitude?
AH: Yes, it certainly does! We like to refer to a “care and share” model. Whatever messages parents send teens about gratitude, the delivery should let youth know that parents care about them and give parents a chance to share their own ideas about gratitude. At first, this may be easier said than done. What does this look like? When parents have conversations about gratitude it’s essential they pay attention to how they’re speaking and listening to their adolescents. Parents who discuss their perspective in a child-friendly manner and ask open-ended questions may do better getting their ultimate message across. Parents can ask how certain experiences made their son feel. They can use verbal prompts that get their daughter thinking about feelings in different ways — “I wonder what your friend was thinking when she was supportive to you…” or “How did that make you feel when your friend spent extra time with you even when she was in a hurry but she knew you were upset?” are just two examples associated with increased gratitude.
AG: You say that community service, going for walks, and taking hikes all drive gratitude. What if your son or daughter isn’t interested in volunteering or dislikes the outdoors?
AH: Parents should do their best to understand their teen’s perspective. Community service and being in nature aren’t the only avenues to greater gratitude. Parents can provide opportunities connected to what their growing adolescent enjoys. Parenting is such a dance; The older children get, the more they’re leading.