During the season of “thanks,” when many are focusing on their blessings, it is tough if your family is struggling through times of stress or a crisis. Whether it’s job loss, a health problem, a relational struggle or another source of stress, your family may find genuine gratitude tough to exude when your thoughts are focused on the situation at hand.
There are many reasons families may struggle with feeling truly grateful during the holidays, but gratitude, despite life circumstances, is important to our emotional and physical health. And since gratitude is a life skill that is learned, Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behavior specialist and uuthor of “Just Tell Me What to Say” says, “Cultivating gratitude in our children should be at the top of a parental to-do list.”
But just how can you encourage gratitude when a dark cloud is looming? Challenge yourself today to adopt one of these tips as a good first step:
Acknowledge the stress. Instead of denying or trying to ignore the issue at hand, discuss the highs and lows of life. Janelle Buchheit, school counselor and founder of New Heights Coaching for Kids, explains how to demonstrate to children of all ages the ups and downs of life. She instructs parents to draw peaks and valleys and label them with your children. Then “let your children know that life is rarely a perfectly straight line.” More importantly, “Let them know that your family acknowledges the valleys, but chooses to spend more time looking at life from the peaks.”
Focus on what you do have. Once you acknowledge the ups and downs of life, be deliberate in your daily focus on the good, whether you are in a peak or a valley. Dr. Cregg Chandler, retired air force chaplain, maintains, “You may not have a job; however, you have your health or the ability to walk, see or feel.” Braun agrees. “Make a list of what you do have, including the smallest of things.” Simple material things are nice, but also share the abstract, such as love among family, the joy of singing and making music or friendship.
Help others. Everyone struggles at times, and while you may feel as though your family is the only one suffering your particular situation, serving others in need can help shift your perspective. Buchheit states, “By helping others in need, we are able to realize all that we have … helping someone else in need is a great way to help children experience gratitude.”
Chandler, author of “A Separation Survival Guide for Military Couples,” describes the benefits of helping others, especially those with similar stress. “I’ve always encouraged (military) families to come together in a community environment … along with having a time for sharing concerns, healing and the giving of thanks.” Working through similarly stressful events or occasions with others often helps ease the burden.
Turn the simple into the special. Parents often underestimate the simple joys of childhood and how special everyday things can be to a child. Adopt a childlike attitude and turn simple blessings into special events. Braun suggests, “Have family experiences. Eat a meal under your dinner table. Laugh together. Play games together. Laugh some more. How grateful you will feel to have one another!” Braun further reminds parents to view experiences as fabulous gifts, and that “people often forget gifts, but they never forget experiences!”
Fake it. You don’t need to be overly artificial, but when struggles really challenge your ability to feel genuine gratitude, you have to practice gratitude even if it feels forced. Buchheit coaches parents to give gratitude your best effort, even under the hardest of circumstances, and eventually, “your words will go from feeling fake or silly to meaningful. If we say anything long enough, we can often convince ourselves of it.”
Look to the world. If you still struggle with thankfulness, focusing on your position and life circumstances in contrast to many other parts of the world can also help shift your perspective. Dr. Chandler encourages participation in international outreach, such as Samaritan’s Purse, “an organization that sends shoe boxes with inexpensive supplies to children in needy countries. Having your young children participate in this outreach helps them to consider and appreciate the supplies they have, compared to suffering children around the world.”
Often, finding thankfulness is an act of your will, not your emotions. By being mindful and deliberate in focusing on your blessings, you are helping not only your own attitude but also that of your family. Buchheit concludes, “Teaching gratitude to children at a young age is a powerful habit they can take into adulthood.” If nothing else, focusing on your powerful ability to positively shape your child’s future attitude may be reason enough to count your blessings.