We want our kids to grow into positive, well-adjusted adults who function successfully in society. Teaching them to display gratitude, not entitlement, is one of the challenges of parenting teens.
How can we help our teens to develop a sense of gratitude? Research shows that gratitude is connected to overall life satisfaction and that teens can develop gratitude as a life skill. Parents should model appreciation, encourage teens to reflect on what they receive, teach good manners, inspire teens to volunteer and limit time spent on social media.
In this article, you’ll find practical suggestions for helping teens to avoid the pitfalls of feeling entitled. Gratitude can be learned.
Parenting Teens who Display Gratitude
To help our teens grow into happy, well-adjusted adults, we teach them values that will contribute to their happiness. Consider gratitude as a frame of mind that will accomplish this goal.
In a well-known TED Talk, monk and scholar David Steindl-Rast shares, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful; it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” According to Steindl-Rast, we naturally feel grateful when we realize that a gift has been freely given to us. He goes on to say that every moment of every day is a freely given gift that provides us with the opportunity to experience life. It’s this opportunity that is the real gift.
Steindl-Rast’s philosophy is probably too deep for many of our teens, but he shares an important point that we can pass along. If we can teach teens that they are recipients of gifts from the world around them, rather than being entitled to everything they experience, we can help them to develop a grateful frame of mind.
Gratitude is the antidote to entitlement.
Of course, we adults can work on experiencing gratitude, too. After all, we’re the models that our teens see every day. And they’re always watching us, even when they appear oblivious. We can inspire gratitude in our teens through a number of small acts.
- Spending quality time with our teens when we focus on them as individuals
- Modeling gratitude by saying “thank you” or sending thank you notes to others
- Helping our teens to safely establish their own autonomy
- Emphasizing our teens’ strengths as ways to help others
- Showing gratitude as a regular part of family life in the home
Here are 9 secrets to raising a grateful teen.
1 – Show Gratitude to Your Teen
Show your teen that you’re grateful to have them in your life. Express your thanks for the efforts they make. Whether it’s earning a good grade on schoolwork, completing a chore at home, or being kind to an older neighbor, you can find something to thank you teen for every day.
This helps your teen in 2 ways:
- When you show gratitude to your teen, you’re modeling gratitude as a normal part of day-to-day life. Say “thank you” or do a little extra favor for your teen on a regular basis. Modeling is the most successful form of teaching. If your teen grows up in a home where gratitude is modeled, she will be more likely to develop gratitude on her own.
- When you show gratitude to your teen, it helps them develop a sense of self-worth. According to researcher Robert Emmons, Ph.D., “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.” Seeing people work together in networks of friends, families, and communities, helps teens develop gratitude for others who contribute to their well-being.
2 – Share Stories of Gratitude with Your Teen
Dinnertime conversations are a great way to introduce a theme of gratitude. If you don’t get to sit down for dinner together, you can have these conversations in the car on the way to soccer practice or in those few quiet moments before lights-out bedtime.
- Teach your children about their family members. Let them know about their ancestors . . . where they came from and the hardships that they might have endured. Learning about family history teaches teens that none of us do everything on our own. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and to those who currently support us.
- Have conversations where you talk about people and things that you’re grateful for. Did another driver pause to let you into traffic this morning? Did a coworker help you finish an important project today? Share those little favors with your teen, and let them know that you’re grateful for them. Encourage your teen to think of things they’re grateful for, too.
- Share stories from your own teenage years. Tell you teen about a favorite coach, teacher, or grandparent who helped you in a meaningful way. Let them know that you will always be grateful for that person’s influence on your life. Ask your teen if they have similar stories from their own experience.
3 – Teach Good Manners
Good, old-fashioned manners never go out of style. If you’re parenting teens, you’ve been teaching good manners for more than 10 years, now. Teaching your teens to say “please” and “thank you” and to show respect and consideration for others is an ongoing parental duty. Here are some ideas for encouraging teens to display gratitude.
- Thank the clerk who waits on them at a store.
- Thank the server who brings their meal in a restaurant.
- Thank their teacher on the way out of the classroom.
- Thank their coach at the end of practice.
- Thank their siblings and parents for small kindnesses at home.
- Reciprocate with kind gestures such as holding a door, or stepping aside to let others pass.
Expressing appreciation for their teachers is a simple, but powerful act for a teen. After 20+ years of teaching, I’m still surprised when a student thanks me for a lesson. It’s that rare. But every time I hear it, I’m energized and pass that enthusiasm along to my next class of students.
Of course, simply saying “thank you” doesn’t guarantee that your teen has truly developed an attitude of gratitude. But showing good manners goes a long way toward establishing positive habits and character traits that will build gratitude over the years.
4 – Spend Focused, Quality Time with Your Teen
Your teen might give you the idea that you’re the last person he wants to spendtime with. That’s O.K. Do it anyway. When you do get a chance to spend time with your teen, make it count.
- Put away your phone and turn off the TV. Focus on the conversation with your teen.
- Try not to be judgmental. Try not to jump in with advice. Let your teen talk, and stay focused on what they’re telling you.
- Let your teen know that you’re grateful for their spending time with you and that you value what they have to say.
- Ask your teen to help you with a project around the house and then thank them for their help.
- Ask you teen to help you run errands or perform tasks for family members or neighbors, and then thank them for their help.
5 – Encourage Your Teen to Keep a Gratitude Journal
Research shows the value of keeping a gratitude journal. Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough conducted a study where they had subjects write down the things they were grateful for. After 10 weeks, the group that participated in gratitude journaling showed significantly more optimism and happiness. Writing in a gratitude journal 1-to-3 times a week produces the most long-lasting effects.
- Encourage your teen to keep a gratitude journal. They can write one thing they’re grateful for every day or make a list of 3-5 things at the end of every week.
- Keep a gratitude journal of your own and share it with your teen. Compare notes at the end of each week.
- Create a group gratitude journal on a chalkboard or cork board in your kitchen or family room. Invite members of the whole family to write or post things that they’re grateful for on a regular basis.
6 – Make it Routine to Write Thank You Notes
Holidays and birthdays can be chaotic with large gatherings of friends and family, noise, and fun. Although you might be exhausted at the end of those celebrations, it’s important to keep track of gifts and to insist that your teens write thank you notes. Ignore the naysayers (including your teens) who say that thank you notes are a lost art. The act of composing a note on an actual piece of paper forces us to slow down, to reflect on the experience of receiving a gift.
- Have your teen write a list of gifts they received and who gave them each gift.
- Provide note paper, envelopes, addresses, and stamps.
- Monitor and remind your teen to get the thank you notes written and sent within a specified time period (1-2 weeks, perhaps).
Letters of thanks are important at other times, too. Encourage your teen to write letters expressing thanks to anyone who helps and supports them.
- Write a letter of thanks to your coach at the end of the season.
- Write a letter of thanks to a favorite teacher at the end of the school year.
- Write a letter of thanks to a grandparent or family member who contributes to a college fund, vacation, or activity fund.
7 – Encourage Your Teen to Use their Strengths to Serve Others
Civic service is closely tied to developing a mindset of gratitude. Most high schools offer clubs and service organizations that provide opportunities for teens to volunteer in their communities. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H are well-known organizations (outside of school) that encourage teen volunteerism, too. Encourage your teen to seek out opportunities where they can contribute their time and energy toward helping others.
- Is your teen strong and good with tools? Encourage them to do yard work or make minor repairs for a grandparent or an older neighbor.
- Is your teen outgoing and a natural leader? Encourage them to head up a food drive to contribute to a local food bank.
- Does your teen have a knack for entertaining toddlers? Encourage them to volunteer in the church nursery.
- Is your teen a computer whiz? Encourage them to volunteer at the local library, helping younger kids with internet searches.
When we help others, we naturally develop a sense of gratitude for all that we have been given. Your teen can develop a sense of self-worth and gratitude as they volunteer to give of themselves in service to others.
8 – Monitor and Limit Social Media
Social media can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes it’s a connecting, supportive influence. Yet it can also be toxic for teens in the way that it encourages surface comparisons of lifestyles, criticism or even bullying. It’s also tough to find the balance between monitoring your teen’s social media while honoring their right to privacy. That line is different for every parent I know.
Depending on how your teen uses it, social media might also counteract the development of gratitude.
- Social media can reinforce a sense of entitlement. “Everybody else has . . . (the latest shoes, purse, outfit) . . . so, I deserve it, too.”
- Too much time spent on social media can cause teens to withdraw from real-life interactions and relationships.
- Social media is too often focused on consumerism. The message is that to be happy, you must have more, more, more. This attitude is the antithesis of gratitude.
Some tips for monitoring social media that some parents have used include:
- Investigate parental control apps and set one up on your teen’s phone. Check in occasionally to monitor your teen’s social media posts.
- Set and enforce a limit on screen time.
- Establish a ‘phone contract’ with your teen. If you are paying for the phone, then your teen must observe certain rules and limitations in order to keep the phone.
9 – Share Movies that Celebrate Gratitude
Do you have an occasional family movie night? Share a film in which the characters demonstrate gratitude in a dramatic way. The following movies are suitable for teens and tell inspirational stories of gratitude. Many are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and Hulu.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (ages 12+)
- Mrs. Doubtfire (ages 12+)
- Freaky Friday (PG)
- It Could Happen to You (PG)
- It’s a Wonderful Life (PG)
- Life is Beautiful (ages 13+)
- Lion (ages 13+)
- Lost Boys of Sudan (13+)
- The Blind Side (PG 13)
- Can You Dig This? (ages 14+)
- Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (ages 14+)
- Wild Rose (ages 15+)
- The Revolutionary Optimists (PG documentary)
Follow up after the movie with a discussion about how the characters displayed gratitude. What were they grateful for? Did they have lots of good luck, money, and possessions? Or something else? What events in their lives led them to be grateful? Try to get your teen to talk about gratitude as they saw it portrayed in the movie.
If you’re like most of us, parenting teens is one of the biggest challenges of your life. Nobody ever thinks they get it 100% right. But if you’re interested in raising a grateful teen, the fact that you’ve read this far means that you’re already on the right track.
Continue to emphasize a sense of gratitude in your daily home life and interactions with your teen. Even when they don’t appear to be listening to you, it will sink in.
And don’t forget to thank them for being the wonderful kids that they are.