By Arastou Aminzadeh, Co-Founder, BNI Treatment Center
If you were to ask a teenager what they feel grateful for during the global pandemic, many would mention TikTok, video games, or Netflix. These pastimes aren’t always engaging, but serve as a welcome distraction from bad news. Who can blame teens for gravitating towards that?
Living through the pandemic leaves many teens feeling robbed of memorable life experiences. For a year, teens have had to largely forfeit many of their usual social gatherings, sports, a new college experience, and even once-in-a-lifetime events like senior prom and graduation ceremonies. With all these disruptions, teaching gratitude can be a tall order.
Parents have a unique opportunity to provide their teens with an alternate viewpoint. As frustrated as both parents and teens are with the serious impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents can try to move beyond those feelings and use these times as a teachable moment. Every teenager can summon up gratitude with a little nudge from parents.
Why It’s Important to Feel Grateful
As a parent, you try to teach your kids about gratitude from a very young age. Whether it’s saying thank you for homework help or showing appreciation for a delicious family meal, parents remind their kids that gratitude is part of everyday life. We want our children to be thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate beings, and one of the best ways to develop these qualities by teaching gratitude.
But during the teen years, “Remember to say thank you!” doesn’t always sink in. Adolescents have a natural reflex to dismiss advice from mom and dad, embracing the influence of peers instead. The typical teen might even be described as egocentric as this stage of development involves the tendency to disregard lessons from childhood in order to delineate as emerging adults.
The problem with teens leaving gratitude by the wayside is the risk of embracing a sense of entitlement and victimhood. By balancing teens’ tendency toward peer-think with the grounding concept of gratitude, it can actually improve their mental health in general, and teens’ personal sense of happiness.
Teaching Your Teens About Gratitude the Epidemic
Teaching gratitude may seem daunting and unachievable for parents, especially when there seems to be little for teens to be grateful for. Not to mention the added difficulty when teens tend to tune out parental advice. Even with these obstacles, it is possible for parents to help instill a sense of gratitude in their teens. This cannot be achieved through long-winded lectures or by ridiculing your teen for being selfish and entitled. If a parent wishes to cultivate gratitude in their teen during lockdown, it will need to happen subtly. Consider these 6 tips:
- Set an example. As hard as it might be for parents to display a sense of gratitude when their own lives are far from perfect, it is imperative that they demonstrate their own gratitude for even the smallest things. As role models, parents are tasked with the job of practicing what they preach. In a casual conversation, bring up something that you experienced that day that you feel grateful for. Do this each day in order to form a rhythm of thankfulness. This repeated practice will instill a deeper sense of gratitude in your teen and instead of focusing on the negative, they will be inclined to positivity.
- Volunteer as a family. Millions of Americans struggle with unemployment every year and are dealing with financial hardship. The pandemic is a great time to lend a helping hand to those in need. Parents can organize a food drive and partner with a community organization, food bank, or a local church. Try getting your teen involved in the planning and execution process. Your teen will witness how fortunate they are to have the means to help others during a difficult time.
- Recognize your teen’s efforts. Whenever your teen demonstrates thoughtfulness, gratitude, or compassion, be sure to recognize it. Parents don’t need to make a big scene, but simply smiling and saying how proud they are can make an impact. This positive reinforcement is more likely to encourage teens to develop gratitude as they grow into their adult selves.
- Use visuals. Developmentally, teens tend to focus more on what goes on in their personal worlds rather than the world around them. If the teen has grown up in an affluent household having all their needs met, they may not possess a perspective that allows them to understand how fortunate they are. For example, it may come as a shock to the teen to witness a homeless encampment.
When driving through town with your teen, take a different route and expose the teen to different conditions that people live in. Start a conversation about what the teen is thinking and feeling in response to this experience and be open to any questions they might have. The disparity between the quality of life your teen is used to and what they just witnessed will broaden their outlook on life. Your teen will return home feeling grateful for what their family has.
- Begin a gratitude tradition. The perfect time to start a gratitude tradition is now! At dinnertime, allow everyone to discuss some of the ups and downs of the past week. A parent could then bring up the topic of positivity. The hope is that the whole family will participate in choosing to view their day through the lens of gratitude. Next, go around the table and each family member can relay one positive thing from their day that they are grateful for. Even if you get an eye roll from the teen, they will still witness the examples being shared and seeds will be planted.
- Encourage teens to roll up their sleeves. This pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to offer our services to others. Consider enlisting the teen to offer help to an elderly neighbor by running errands for them. Another idea is to suggest the teen tutor a neighbor through Zoom, or help a sibling with their homework.
While the teen might scoff at these suggestions, try to encourage your teen by reminding them of someone that has positively impacted their own life. Explain to your teen that they can have a similar influence in someone else’s life. They will learn that helping others not only benefits the person they are helping, but is meaningful for them too.
Parents may mistakenly believe their sullen teen will not be receptive to the idea of gratitude, but let them surprise you. With guidance and some strategizing, your teen will feel grateful for their many blessings during this time.
About the Author
Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh is a triple board certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills, California.
Dr. Aminzadeh is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and also a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. A well respected leader in the field, he also holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, where he completed his residency and fellowship.