Gratitude and Mental Health are Connected

I am grateful for...

Gratitude and mental health are linked, and not just at Thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude can benefit kids’ mental health.

Gratitude is the act of being thankful or acknowledging the good things in your life. It means taking the time to reflect and highlight the positive. It is the opposite of focusing on what you do not have, do not like or challenges.

Gratitude and Mental Health: Reducing Stress and Anxiety

Grateful people are more optimistic, feel more positive emotions, enjoy and remember good experiences, deal with adversity, build strong relationships with others, and most importantly, create healthy relationships with themselves.

Studies have shown that gratitude allows us to handle stress better. Being grateful can rewire our brain to deal with the present with more awareness and perception, which in turn reduces depression and anxiety.

As a result, research has shown that gratitude can reduce suicide risk. In addition, gratitude improves moods. By always focusing on what we do not achieve or get, we may start to think negatively about ourselves and lose hope.

Gratitude can balance challenging emotions. Even when your child is having a distressing day, encouraging them to identify some good things in their life can help them feel a little bit better.

Can Gratitude Improve Your Overall Health?

Feeling thankful can improve sleep and immunity and decrease chronic pain and risk of disease.

Positive gestures release oxytocin, a neuropeptide known for fostering pro-social behaviors like trust, generosity and affection. It also can reduce blood pressure, promote growth and healing and increase the pain threshold. Having grateful thoughts helps your heart by slowing and regulating breathing to synchronize with your heartbeat.

Being grateful can even help people get more ZZ’s. Thinking about what you are grateful for just before bed can improve sleep quality and duration. Being thankful for friends and family also strengthens relationships.

Helping Children Express Gratitude  

Like many things, gratitude is something that may need to be practiced to get stronger. Practicing gratitude can increase how often someone experiences desirable emotions like happiness, pride and contentment.

As parents, start openly modeling gratitude language. Try pointing out things you liked about your day. (“I’m glad we got all green lights,” or “Wow this soup is so delicious, I’m thankful for my full tummy.”) When parents are more grateful, their children often express more gratitude.

It is also important for parents to express gratitude to their children. Pay attention to the effort children give, taking time to praise them when they clean up toys, help with chores or finish tasks without you reminding them.

Challenge your child to notice when things (even small things!) go well. As a result, they can start to foster more hopefulness, which can lead to more hopeful actions. Often, we only genuinely appreciate these things when they stop working (it is easy to ignore a refrigerator until it breaks down). Do not wait for these wake-up calls to appreciate the little things that make life better each day.

Practicing Gratitude with Children

Habits formed in childhood last for a lifetime, and providing our children with mental health tools and positive practices is a priceless gift we can provide them.

Here are a few tips for practicing gratitude:

  • Establish a gratitude ritual. Add expressing gratitude to your family’s routine by saying a few things everyone is grateful for around the table at dinner, in the car on the way to school or right before bedtime.
  • Start a gratitude journal, tree or jar. Every day, have your family members write down something they are grateful for in a notebook, on a leaf or on a slip of paper. Keep that notebook, tree or jar in a safe place. Weeks or months later, go back and look at everything that was written as a family.
  • Do an act of kindness for someone. Put gratitude into action by volunteering, writing a thank you note or letter, dropping off flowers on someone’s porch or bringing in a neighbor’s garbage can.
  • Practice saying, “thank you.” If you are grateful for someone, tell them! Not only will it make you feel good; it will make them feel good, too.

Kids’ Minds Matter

Kids’ Minds Matter is grateful for advocates and donors who have helped expand access to pediatric mental and behavioral health services.