two coas talking outside during the winter

Mary Beth Collins, NACoA Director of ProgramsDuring the week of Thanksgiving, and increasingly throughout the entire month of November, many post on social media, or send notes or letters, expressing gratitude. At the Thanksgiving table many families treasure the tradition of allowing everyone a moment to speak about what they are thankful for. It’s a wonderful time of year to pause, to reflect and give appreciation for one’s many blessings.

Gratitude doesn’t have to be reserved for holiday rhetoric; an attitude of gratitude can be an important part of everyday living.

The regular routine of appreciation and expressing gratitude daily is a healthy practice for everyone, but offers even more value and healing for children living with inter-generational trauma in the home. These children, vulnerable to irresolvable stress because of the day-to-day inconsistency brought about by parental addiction, often live in fear and anticipate the worst. NACoA co-founder and internationally renowned author and trainer Claudia Black, PhD explains why gratitude may not come easily for these kids: “Sometimes, it may feel simply impossible to see the positive in a given situation or to have gratitude for your position in life. We may feel like the world is intent on sending us obstacles and gratitude may seem out of reach. What’s ironic is that gratitude is just what we may need to conjure up solutions to life’s challenges.” Psychologist and author Tian Dayton PhD, TEP, works with adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) and emphasizes its importance in healing: “Gratitude, according to current research, can do anything from helping you to achieve your goals more fluidly, to improving your skills of empathy and resilience.” In her recent blog post, Tian discusses gratitude for children of all ages who have grown up in alcoholic homes: ACoA’s and Children of Trauma: 7 Things You Can Be Grateful For.

Living an attitude of gratitude daily is very different than the mannered thank you when someone helps during a crisis or provides an unexpected kindness. Being grateful about even small, everyday things, helps a person feel content, regardless of life circumstances. A grateful attitude actually changes the perspective one has on life, raising awareness of everyday things that are special. Further, children and teens go through the day more relaxed and less stressed, sleep better, and with a positive attitude that tends to make other people feel better as well. By helping kids live an attitude of gratitude, it helps distract their attention from what challenges them, removes the need to fantasize about what they don’t have, and conditions them to focus on what gives them contentment and joy.

Psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami have conducted research on gratitude. In one study, after 10 weeks of writing about gratitude individuals were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

How to Nurture an Attitude of Gratitude
“Kids don’t care about what we know, until they know how much we care,” says Jerry Moe, National Director of Children’s Programs at the Betty Ford Center. It only takes one caring adult to make a difference in the life of a child, whether you know the child professionally or personally. As a caring adult, share your feelings and explain age appropriately that you care about them. Do things together that show you care, however simple. Take part in activities you both enjoy or find meaningful. When spending time with kids and teens, model gratitude with a positive attitude. Give compliments, point out things to be appreciative of, say thank you to the child or teen and when they are in your presence. Demonstrate what gratitude – and healthy thinking – looks like. In this way, you can help raise awareness of feelings, thought processes, and life skills that may not exist at home when adults are preoccupied with addiction. Then ask them what they are grateful for.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that caring adults connect children with someone who doesn’t “need charity” for the child to serve. Arrange to have kids water plants for a neighbor, or bring trash cans in after school. Have a teen prepare a meal for a visiting relative, or someone who is ill. Serving others is a healthy practice that feeds one’s self confidence, improves one’s mood, and allows individuals to develop empathy. When a child or teen serves someone more intimately than helping out in a food kitchen or shelter, they additionally learn how good it feels to receive the appreciation of their service.

Easy Ways Adults Can Help Kids Develop an Attitude of Gratitude
Simple activities done together can be fun for everyone: listen to music, do a craft together, call/facetime a friend/relative you haven’t talked to recently, watch a favorite DVD, do something outdoors together,bake/cook together, take time to use a gratitude journal. Claudia Black says simply: “Developing gratitude is like building muscles – doing so requires repetition and persistence.” NACoA’s Attitude of Gratitude infographic spotlights important basics about how to foster gratitude in the lives of children. Share with colleagues, friends and loved ones!