Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and yet, the shorter days and colder weather can make us feel anything but thankful. Scientists have discovered that the lessening sunlight decreases production of serotonin (the chemicals your body produces that are partially responsible for boosting your mood and establishing healthy sleeping patterns), and melatonin levels rise. This means your body is working against you in contributing towards morose and sometimes anxious feelings. And it’s not just adults, although it’s certainly more common – some studies estimated that 10-20 percent of children and adolescents develop mild SAD (seasonal affective disorder) symptoms as winter begins! While experts recommend routine, exercise/activity, a healthy diet, quality time with loved ones, and exposure to sunlight to naturally combat the blues, there is another practice that can contribute to mental health: gratitude.
“Happiness is in many respects a skill that parents can teach their children, and the relationship between gratitude and happiness is really strong.”
Dr. Christine Carter
This month, our Children’s House (preschool) classrooms are practicing gratitude every day. They write down things which they are grateful for and put them in a jar to be opened and read aloud at our school community Thanksgiving Feast on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
If you find your children frequently complaining, whining, listless, sad, or negative, perhaps intentional modeling of gratitude in your home can give their mood a boost! Here are some ideas of how to practice gratitude as a family.
- Keep a gratitude jar. Keep slips of paper, a pencil and a decorative jar somewhere where your child has access to it. The entire family can add to this jar daily, and at the end of the month, or on another special occasion, read them out loud together. Write down experiences or circumstances you are thankful for, in addition to people! Write a special thank you to family members! Some people even put up a Gratitude Tree (as simple as a branch put in a pebble-filled flowerpot) during the month of November – gratitude notes are written on leaf-shaped slips of paper then hung on the branches of their “tree”.
- Acknowledge the ordinary. We tend to save lessons on gratitude for the “big” things like birthday gifts, at which point we tell our children, “Say thank you!” And yet, how might we a quiet, unexpected, “Thank you for doing the laundry,” or, “Thank you for working so hard for our family,” can be such a gift to our souls – what if we were to acknowledge the ordinary moments in our child’s life?
- Invite your child into the responsibilities of caring for a family. Not only will they love that they are “grown up” enough to be trusted to help as you wash windows, mop floors, rake leaves and fold clothes, but it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to gain a little perspective on what it takes to care for a family. Follow it up by acknowledging, “I enjoyed emptying the dishwasher with you, thank you! It went so much faster with your help.”
- Be intentional to appreciate and affirm others (in front of your child). We are often quick to criticize and slow to affirm. Instead of saying, “I can’t believe what that person said!” consider saying, “I wonder if that person was having a rough day.” When you are given excellent customer service, be sure to let that person know how well they did, or even better, let their manager know. Expressing gratitude in front of your children is powerful!
- Show your gratitude. Saying “thank you” is meaningless unless we, well, mean it! Sometimes we need to slow down and DO something to express our thanks. Draw a picture for someone. Write a thank you note. Take a video message and send it to someone. Make and drop off a sweet treat for someone. Leave your postman/woman a goodie bag. Find ways to give back to your community – shopping for Christmas gifts for a family in need, donating toys, making fleece tie blankets for a charity, etc. Involve your child in intentionally expressing gratitude.
Expressing gratitude as a family – not just on Thanksgiving, but year-round – will bring your heart and homes so much joy, not just on Thanksgiving, but year-round. So, start counting your blessings, and bumping up those serotonin levels!