Mental health matters. For everyone. And when it comes to mental health, prevention is imperative. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recognized that conditions like anxiety and depression are prevalent and frighteningly under-recognized in kids and adolescents—and on the rise.
But here’s the good news. There are relatively simple, science-backed tools that parents can implement at home to help kids and teens thrive on an emotional and social level, and helping them incorporate a daily gratitude practice is near the top of the list.
What the research says
As parents, we know we should be thankful. But who knew that practicing gratitude could actually change the brain’s structure to make us healthier and happier? Now imagine if parents everywhere taught their teens mindful gratitude techniques. Imagine what the trajectory of their lives could look like if they learned these practices early.
- Practicing gratitude regularly makes people happier in the long term. Positive psychology research has repeatedly shown consistent and strong associations between gratitude practices and happiness scores. Lauren Kerwin, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist who treats youth and young adults with diagnoses including suicidality, emotional dysregulation, severe anxiety and depression, simplifies the impact of gratitude practice by noting that it increases feelings of joy, and when one is feeling joy, it is “harder to feel negative emotions.” Dr. Kerwin suggests that a person is “less likely to compare [themselves] to those that have more than them” when they are focused on what they actually do have. She says that grateful mindsets actually result in just the opposite—an awareness of those who have less and an appreciation for how much you have compared to many others.
- Teens’ social connections with both family and friends are improved through the practice of gratitude. Our teens are living in a technology-forward, social-media-dependent world. Often, their relationships depend on social media interactions. Teens who practice gratitude have been shown to use social media for more meaningful conversation and connection without increasing their overall social media use.
- Gratitude practices have been shown to increase self-esteem, decrease depression, and decrease suicidal thoughts. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among people age 10 to 24. The 2019 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System showed that almost 20% of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide and nearly 9% had actually attempted it. And, for perspective, that data is pre-pandemic. Since the onset of Covid in the U.S., the healthcare system has seen an enormous influx of adolescents and teens experiencing mental health crises—making now an even more necessary time for mental wellness practices.
- Several studies demonstrate impressive correlations between gratitude and adolescent materialism. In one study that used real money and donating to charity as a behavior measure, adolescents who consistently made entries in a personal gratitude journal donated 60% more of their earnings to charity as compared to the group who was not participating in a gratitude practice.
- Sleep quality may be improved by the intentional practice of gratitude before bed. More generally, sleep quality has been shown to be higher in people who generally have a grateful disposition. And don’t we all know that our teens could use any help they can get in the sleep department as they navigate a world where pandemics shift societal rules regularly and wars break out, seemingly overnight.
Gratitude practices aren’t complicated. They don’t require a professional to implement. They just require us to start. To think of what we have. To slowly, gradually, thoughtfully shift perspectives.
How you can help your teen be grateful
Dr. Kerwin suggests that, first and foremost, it’s really helpful for parents to model gratitude by sharing what they’re grateful for about their children. Sounds simple. Seems straightforward. But so often moments of praise and expressions of thanks are overlooked as we move through our busy days and evenings, then collapse into bed at night.
Other simple tools to help your teen practice mental wellness:
- Go for a stroll. That’s it: Simply go for a walk with your teen and focus on “just being aware of how the pavement feels on your feet,” suggests Dr. Kerwin. This is part of just being. Just living in the moment. And doing it together with your teen.
- Have a chat. The trick is to enter a conversation with your teen and focus all of your attention on what they are saying, truly being present and very consciously avoiding judgment, explains Dr. Kerwin.
- Start a pre-bedtime pause. Before bed (and since we know our teens stay up later than us half the time, this can be before whoever’s bedtime comes first!), spend 5 minutes with your teen discussing things from their day for which they feel thankful. Nothing is too small or too grand. Gratitude is about noticing the good in even the most miniscule of moments.
- Put it in writing. Shop for a journal together with your teen, or gift one. Then ask them to write it all down—all the small moments, big emotions and interactions that make them happy or thankful. A daily gratitude journal is one of the most widely recommended ways to integrate the practice of being thankful into daily life.
- Redesign rituals. Many cultures and groups with religious or spiritual affiliations pray prior to meals, expressing their thanks for their food, for the day, putting positive thoughts into the world. With that model in mind, parents can consider implementing similar routines in their households. Take time as a family to intentionally express gratitude, whether before meals, during a daily walk together, in the morning over coffee, or in any other way that fits a family’s daily flow of activities.
A note from Motherly
Mindfully, intentionally shifting one’s thoughts toward gratitude and working toward a generally grateful disposition is scientifically proven to improve your quality of life. Parents and teens alike can benefit enormously by working together toward that goal. For your children’s mental health and for your own, take simple, intentional steps every day to be thankful, and in time reap the benefit of having a mind that naturally focuses on the good in life, on the joyful aspects of situations, on the things we have rather than the things we don’t.
Lauren Kerwin, Ph.D, is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience treating an extensive variety of mental health diagnoses in youth and young adults. Currently practicing in California, her experience and education spans both coasts of the United States, having begun her training at the renowned McLean Hospital as well as Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Kerwin’s current practice focuses on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, with mindfulness being one of the method’s core pillars, in support of youth and young adults with complex diagnostic presentations, including but not limited to suicidality, self-harm, severe anxiety, and depression.