Kids with Anxiety Part 4: Gratitude

November 23, 2016

Studies have shown the power of gratitude to combat negative thought patterns and reshape the brain. Your brain can’t be in gratitude and worry at the same time, so gratitude is a great way to overcome anxiety.

But, how do you teach an anxious kid to replace negative, repetitive thoughts with gratitude?

Here are three easy ways!

1.  Family Meal Gratitude Rituals

Studies show that children who have healthy, daily rituals function better in the world.  Many families say a prayer before meals.  If your family already does this, you can easily add a gratitude ritual before or after the prayer.  If your family doesn’t say prayers, this ritual can stand on its own.

We started a gratitude ritual in our family for two reasons.  First, A, my youngest son, who was about 10 at the time, had become increasingly negative.  A complained A LOT about EVERYTHING!  It was very frustrating.  Serendipitously, I was in yoga teacher training at the time and learning about the yamas and niyamas for the first time, and I was assigned to write a paper on Santosha (contentment).  Through this research and writing process I realized that Santosha was what our family needed so we began two new dinner rituals.  We call them “Good Thing” and “Looking Forward To.”

Good Thing is when each of us tells something good from our day, essentially something we’re grateful for.  J almost always says something about video games or food.  A often says something about the food, but sometimes he says something about his day.  C says something different every day.  My husband and I try to say something often about the kids or each other.  This gives us a chance to demonstrate gratitude in front of the kids every day!

We had to make a couple of rules.  Your good thing has to be something different than the day before.  It should be something from that day.  You can’t just repeat what the person before you says.  It has to be positive and as specific as possible.

We start this ritual by asking, “What’s your good thing today?”  We go in order of youngest to oldest.  When we have visitors, we ask them to participate as well.  This has been a blessing for our family and friends!

Here are some things our family and friends have said:

  • time with family and friends
  • time with Mom
  • new friends
  • winning a game
  • playing well in a game
  • being able to watch one of the kids play a game
  • good food
  • chicken
  • pizza
  • school/work being over
  • feeling better
  • waking up this morning
  • breathing
  • having someone else cook dinner

Looking Forward To is about hopefulness.  At the end of the meal, each person says what they’re looking forward to that day or in the next few days.  J almost always says “sleep” or “freedom” (meaning he’ll be able to leave the table and do something else or he’ll be done with his chores).  Everyone else has a variety of responses.

We start this ritual by asking, “What are you looking forward to?”  Again, we go youngest to oldest.  The kids aren’t allowed to leave the table until everyone answers, unless they’re doing dishes.

We have had lots of different answers!

  • Carowinds (an amusement park in Charlotte)
  • hiking
  • playing with friends
  • going to Grammy’s house
  • holidays
  • freedom
  • snack
  • Tony’s Ice Cream
  • Sweet Frog (for straight A’s)
  • cuddle time
  • sleep
  • the weekend
A still complains sometimes, but these rituals seem to have helped him.  They also bring our family closer and help us all remember the good things in our day.

2. Practicing Gratitude Throughout the Day

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Practicing gratitude throughout the day is good for everyone.  It gives you lots of opportunities to demonstrate and teach gratitude.  There are three ways to start practicing gratitude.
1. Say your own gratitudes OUT LOUD and OFTEN.  We often don’t realize how much time we spend complaining about the driver in front of us or the long lines.  Instead, look for opportunities to say you’re thankful, especially if your kids are with you.
  • “That lady was really nice to let that man out onto the highway.” Pointing out something nice done for someone else.
  • Wave to the person who let you out and say “Thank You” out loud, even though the driver can’t hear you.
  • Tell stories about times that people have done nice things for you throughout your day.
  • Point out nice things that people do for you or others like holding the door  or letting you ahead in line.
  • Thank people for doing their jobs.

2. Turn complaints into gratitudes.  When your child complains about something, see if you can get them to also say something good.  For example if he says, “I don’t like Grammy’s house because it’s boring.” You could ask about how she buys him special food he likes and other special things she does for him.  Don’t let this turn into a battle, though.  If the child makes one complaint, you can tell one positive thing and then move on to something else.

3. Practice gratitude when they’re happy.  Sometimes kids get stuck in the habit of only saying negative things.  You can lead them to positive things by asking open ended (not yes/no) questions:
  • What was your favorite part of the activity?
  • What nice things did you see people doing?
  • What positive thing will you remember about today?
If you have multiple children, start with the one who is most likely to give you a positive answer or ask your spouse the question first and then go around and have everyone answer.

3.  Start a Gratitude Journal with Your Child

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My gratitude journal changed my life!  I can look back and clearly see that when I started keeping a gratitude journal, my thought patterns changed.  Not only is this good for anxiety, it works for depression as well!
When my daughter C started showing signs of anxiety a couple of years ago, I started one with her and she has told me how much it has helped her.  She has kept her journal largely on her own.  I helped C set it up and gave her some helpful hints, but she does it on her own now.
Anxious kids need structure, but they also need to be allowed to “break the rules.” If things are too structured, it can make them more anxious about trying to meet what they see as unreasonable expectations.  I gave C the basic outline for the journal, but was sure to tell her that she didn’t need to do it every day.  I told her that the more she did it, the better she would feel, but if she was too tired or didn’t feel like it, she should skip it.
The structure C uses has three parts
  • Gratitude: 3 things I am grateful (thankful) for today
  • Self Acknowledgement: 3 things I did well today
  • Intention Setting: 1 intention for tomorrow

For the gratitude section, I encourage C to be specific.  Instead of saying, “Savannah” (our cat), maybe say something like, “Cuddling with Savannah because it makes me feel better.”

Self acknowledgement can be hard for anxious kids, but it’s very powerful.  At first, I had to give her lots of examples and be sure to point out things she did well throughout the day.  Now that she’s 13, she needs this pointed out less for her journal, but more for her self-esteem.  We also talk a lot about accepting a compliment even if you don’t believe what the person is saying.  A compliment is a gift and denying the good thing the person is telling you as like throwing a gift in someone’s face.  It’s not nice.  If we can learn to hear the compliment and just say “Thank you,” eventually, we can start to believe these good things about ourselves.
Intention setting seems to be easier for kids than adults.  Adults often try to turn this into a to do list, rather than a positive intention for the day.  C often writes things like
  • Say hi to a new person at school
  • Try my best at Volleyball
  • Be nicer to my brother
  • Smile more
This journal can be very powerful for a child with anxiety or depression.  The parent may need to write it for the child at first, especially if the child is young.   The more control the child asserts over the journal, the more powerful it will be!
How do you teach your children about gratitude?  How has gratitude changed your life?
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