Dr. Grauer's Column - Teens In A Season of Gratitude
Teens in a Season of Gratitude
Dr. Grauer’s Blog was penned this week by Dr. Tricia Valeski, Grauer researcher and Psychology teacher. Read this column and never give thanks the same way again!
Welcome to the season of gratitude.
Picture this (it won’t be hard if you are a parent of a pre-teen or teenager): The holidays are over, meals have been prepared and eaten, gifts have been wrapped and opened, relatives have gone home, and the decorations have been packed away for next year. And there are the thank you notes. Just sitting there, crisp and pristine, waiting for someone, anyone to somehow engage the teenager long enough to sit and write them. It’s been weeks. Every time you speak to your mother, father, grandparent, aunt, you feel or imagine their displeasure. You wait for the inevitable “did Johnny get the gift I sent? I didn't hear from him, so I am worried it didn't arrive.” This will be followed by their lamenting over the fact that children don't send thank you notes anymore, can’t write in cursive, have no manners, and what is the world coming to. You consider buying those notes that just have fill-in-the blanks, but that seems kind of worse than not writing a note at all. You know the kids are too old for you to write the notes for them, but your handwriting is pretty bad so you might just get away with it.
Well, I have news for you: As much as it may seem that it is, it is NOT about the note. In some cultures in fact, it is considered rude or impolite to continuously say “thank you”. Others say thank you non-verbally by simply continuing on with their activities, mutually understanding and respecting the social reciprocity (responding to a positive action with another positive action) of their relationship.
Don't get me wrong, it is important to express gratitude and notes are tried and true. We all want our children to somehow demonstrate gratitude to show the people in our lives that we value them and that they are important to us, to strengthen the connection between ourselves and our loved ones, our communities and our cultures. But we need to distinguish between expressing gratitude and experiencing gratitude. What is it we are “really” teaching our kids: gratitude as linguistic practice or gratitude as an emotion?
Gratitude is an appreciation for what you receive, and an ability and willingness to show that appreciation and to give in return. According to Christine Carter, Ph.D., the director of the GGSC’s Greater Good Parents program, teens are grateful for friends, sense of community, and belonging.
Note to parents: Don't be too upset that you are not on this list. To be a teenager—in the classic sense—means expressing a fundamental desire to individuate from one’s family. Pushing you away, wanting things to be none of your business, and exhibiting relative ignorance of all you have done for them are behaviors that are part of developing independence. So, while your child may have trouble telling you that they appreciate you, that doesn't’ mean that they are not feeling it. And that is the key. The key with teens is not what they say but what they feel. And yes, you may have to be a mind reader.
Research suggests that being able to experience gratitude is a vital part of human cognition, and a “key to motivating and maintaining social reciprocity”.  So as social beings, it is healthy for us to be able to feel grateful—and, again, a wholly different thing than expressing it. The feeling of gratitude increases our motivation and productivity and improves our relationships and sense of belonging. Research also shows that experiencing gratitude has positive effects on individuals’ physical well-being. For example, people who experience gratitude have better cardiovascular health, less stress, fewer headaches, and sleep better. 
Other studies have suggested that the ability of individuals to experience gratitude has important psychological effects, including increased happiness, creativity, self-esteem and optimism.  And it is this last one, optimism, that might be the most critical right now.
Optimists are hopeful about the future, and they have faith that things will work out well. Even when life is not perfect, optimists believe in their ability to be successful. There is a strong link between optimism and self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to control your thoughts, behaviors and outcomes). For example, optimists take direct action to solve problems, deal better with adversity, have more effective coping strategies, learn and grow from negative experiences, and make the best of bad situations.
So how do we create the right conditions for our children to experience gratitude (and the natural optimism of grateful people)? Somehow I don't think that forced thank-you note writing will do the job. However, mindfulness and practice might. At The Grauer School, we have created a culture of kindness and gratitude. Being aware of and expressing gratitude are woven through the fabric of our school, from academics to athletics, core values portfolios, weekly “gratitude jar” sharing at assembly, gratitude circles on every expedition, and community service, our students are learning to reflect on themselves and their experiences and to develop the habit of sharing that reflection with our community. Likewise, parents who model gratitude repeatedly and tirelessly, at holidays, at the dinner table, and socially, normally see big returns in the long run, however thin our patience wears from time to time.
So, if you are sitting at the Thanksgiving table and your child does not say they are grateful for you, don't fret. They are learning and absorbing all of the values and morals you have modeled and imparted to them. Just keep modelling them, just hang on to your patience and encouragement, because your kids see it. They feel it. In their own time, they are becoming kind, optimistic, independent, and efficacious humans. They will be what they and the world need them to be, and they will thank you for it in their way… eventually.
The notorious guitar hero Slash sums it up pretty well this way: “Once you’ve lived a little you will find that whatever you send out into the world comes back to you in one way or another. It may be today, tomorrow, or years from now, but it happens; usually in a form that’s pretty different from the original.”
 Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude, The Royal Society Publishing, May 23, 2018.
 Expressing Gratitude Has Physical Health Benefits As Well As Emotional Benefits, Mark Travers, Forbes, November 27, 2020.
 Giving thanks can make you happier, Harvard Health Publishing, August 14, 2021.
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