By Kimberly Trippodo
Thanksgiving 2017 is in the books… even though the “official” day is past, this is still the season of giving and thankfulness.
As a social worker, I consider Thanksgiving a mental wellness holiday, in which mindfulness, gratitude, and positive cognition are prioritized. I work in Special Education; and I am a parent to thoughtful, explorative, kind young man with Autism. Two years ago, around Thanksgiving, I set out on a quest to do a better job of teaching the concept of gratitude to the children with whom I work. My own child was overstimulated by gift giving, which made gratitude during the exchange of gifts even trickier to teach. In turning to the research, obviously and without question, teaching children gratitude is something which requires the adults to demonstrate consistency, lifestyle change, and even a heart shift.
Gratitude Must Be Modeled
A clear theme in the literature emerged and moved me. The key facet to teaching gratitude turned up time and time again as modeling gratitude (Hammer, 2012 & Kupferschmid, 2015). It’s simple but convicting. Maybe my gratitude is not where it should be, which sets a tone for the children around me. I made an effort to count my blessings…yes, out loud. My husband and I thanked each other for the smallest things, to the point of possible ridiculousness. Something happened to my heart: a joy, a lightness, and humor (which I sometimes forget to have) emerged.
Gratitude is an active skill. To be able to look at challenges and say, “Yet I find a reason to have joy and to be thankful,” takes practice, as well as the ability to tolerate distress and develop solutions to overcome. Think about any maneuver learned in an athletic setting. The easiest way to learn a skill is to watch it done by someone more skilled than you and practice it until it becomes a habit.
Gratitude can be even more easily taught when rituals are made of the modeling. Rituals allow extra practice and folding into routine for our children with intellectual or developmental delays. Community service, volunteering, and charitable giving are great rituals to teach gratitude for what one has and the joy of helping others in need. Sharing what one has can diminish materialism (Hammer, 2012).
Many families in my life have dinner table activities such as “Name a high and a low,” which create ritualized discussion of gratitude nightly. The wonderful thing about this approach is it allows for authentic connection and communication to happen in general. Families who engage in this practice are not saying, “we only accept you if you sugarcoat your life.” Families instead allow children to come as their real selves–happy, sad, the range of emotion, and let it be known that their family can handle that conversation. Still, we teach children that even in the challenging times, we can find a reason to be grateful.
Gratitude Happens in Safe Environments
According to research, the other piece to teaching gratitude to children is to give them secure relationships in which to be vulnerable, in which to fail, in which to figure out who they are. All those pieces of knowing themselves, figuring out adaptability, and having healthy relationships with others reduce anxiety and create comfort and safety, so a child can have the space necessary to reflect on gratitude. The more present-minded, mindful, and unhurried we allow our children to be, the more room there is for gratitude to become a part of their thoughts and lives.
Any of us can think about times in life we felt ostracized or rejected. The precariousness of unstable relationships can make failure much scarier. Now, add the helplessness of child’s inability to care for themselves and the need for survival. Abuse, neglect, or trauma make gratitude much more difficult, for very understandable reasons.
The hopeful thing we know from the literature (Ludy Dobson and Perry, 2010 and DuFrense, 2012) is it just takes one stable adult, showing empathy to a child, to build their sense of safety and coping skills in the world. I work in schools, and while many children have secure relationships and loving families, not all of them do. We can all choose to be an adult who shows up in a consistent and warm manner, not allowing a child’s behavior to change the warmth with which we approach them, any of us can be that one secure relationship.
We have a huge responsibility to our kids. Inspiring gratitude takes more than saying, “be thankful,” to our children. It takes adults devoted to living in a state of gratitude. It is our job to model gratitude and foster safe relationships for the children in our lives. With practice, children can understand and even make a habit of this skill.
Kimberly Trippodo is a Social Worker for Waco ISD. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, anything from fiction, to poetry, to policy analyses, to blog posts. Her other modes of creative expression are culinary concoctions, her violin, and community events. She incorporates art as an expressive outlet in her work with students. She loves all the social and cultural growth happening in Waco, and most weekends, she is out and about in Waco, enjoying the city with her husband and son. You may reach her at [email protected].
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Baumgartner, Audra. 2013. “Teaching Kids Gratitude and Empathy Year-Long.” Pediatric Safety. https://www.pediatricsafety.net/2013/11/teaching-gratitude-empathy/
DuFrense, Susan. 2016. “Safe Adults & Creating Compassionate Schools Parts 1-4” Living in Dialogue. http://www.livingindialogue.com/
Hammer, Connie. 2012. “Growing Gratitude in Children With or Without Autism.” Parent Coaching for Autism. http://parentcoachingforautism.com/growing-gratitude-in-children-with-or-without-autism/
Kupferschmid, Sarah. 2015. “Gratitude, Autism, and ABA.” Behavioral Science in the 21st Century. http://www.bsci21.org/gratitude-autism-and-aba/
Ludy-Dobson, Christine and Perry, Bruce. 2010. “The Role of Healthy Relational Interactions in Buffering the Impact of Childhood Trauma.” Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play. https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/The_Role_of_Healthy_Relational_Interactions_Perry.pdf