Teaching children gratitude

– Nikki Martyn is program head and Elena Merenda is assistant program head of early childhood studies at University of GuelphHumber

Are children with enough stuff disappointed with presents? Modelling limits is a gift

Disappointment is a natural human emotion aroused after perceived failure. For young children, perceived failure can look like not getting the toy they wanted, not being invited to a classmate’s birthday party or losing their favourite stuffed toy.

It is essential for children’s mental health, well-being and overall development that they learn how to deal with disappointment. But this can be difficult for parents to manage, particularly around holidays that have become associated with consumerism, gift-giving and expectations.

North American culture often mistakenly links love and happiness with material goods such as toys; the Santa story promises magical wish fulfilment. This can cause conflict for parents when children don’t get the ‘right’ gift.

On holidays such as Xmas, Diwali, there’s social and personal pressure to provide happiness and joy to children through material gifts, which can be confused with providing necessities. For parents who do not have the resources to provide the perfect or desired gift this can cause additional stress, shame, guilt and fear built around disappointment.

Parents may feel they have let down a child and that they have spoilt her experience and memory of their ‘special day’.

This is especially true if a child has difficulty with or is learning to regulate emotions and expresses disappointment through tantrums or sulking.

These behaviours can profoundly affect parents, often leading them to feel badly about themselves or feel that their child does not love them.

Focus on traditions over gifts

The holiday season should be about love, connection and spending time together. This is at the core of all family traditions and what children will remember and bring with them as they develop and eventually have their own families.

Traditions and rituals are more important for creating meaning and a sense of belonging.

Being a part of something greater than yourself or your immediate family and creating positive loving memories and security are important for children’s emotional, social and cognitive development.

To help children understand the true meaning of a holiday season, you might revise your own traditions. Or you might like to create new family traditions that provide opportunities to connect with each other and your wider community.

Experiences such as baking for others and donating to a food bank or toy drive can help children to understand that the holidays are for making a positive difference.

Emphasize giving, not receiving

Changing our focus from giving rather than receiving can help children develop and appreciate the strength of gratitude.

Research has linked gratitude to significant health and wellness benefits such as improving self-esteem, improving sleep and developing empathy.

The other thing to learn is that although disappointment feels awful, it is part of life and is actually a positive and healthy emotion central to children’s emotional, cognitive and social development throughout their lives.

Parents naturally try to protect their children from pain, to insulate them from what are popularly believed to be negative emotions such as anger, sadness and disappointment.

But it is important for parents to equip children with the tools to manage special day and day-to-day disappointments. Because ultimately, as they grow older, those disappointing moments in life become more profound.

When parents teach children to manage disappointment, it will lead to the development of adaptation and resilience, which are important for children to bounce back from difficult experiences throughout life.

Here are some more ways you can help children deal with disappointment:

1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings

Let them know that you understand. It is important to label and validate children’s feelings. Tell your child that you understand why they are feeling disappointed and that it’s okay to express this emotion. In order for children to develop a positive sense of self, empathy and social skills, they need to be able to feel, label and talk about all emotions.

2. Share your own disappointments

Often when children are disappointed about not receiving what they wanted, they also feel badly because they are told they are fortunate and should be thankful for what they have. To encourage children to embrace and express their emotions, it is helpful to share a story of times when you also experienced disappointment. Perhaps you can remember a holiday when you were young, when you too were disappointed that a dream gift never arrived. Empathize with your child’s emotional experience to remind her that she is not alone and that her emotions are valid.

3. Be mindful, stay present

It’s always important, but especially during the holiday season, to be intentional about the expectations you set for your children. Instead of talking about the gifts under the tree, you could talk about the fun they will have with friends and family during your traditional holidays. Remain present through the disappointment and your child’s reaction. Disappointment can feel awful for children. The emotion and her reaction will pass and your child will be stronger and more resilient if she knows the boundaries.

4. Don’t label your child

During this time, it is important to be mindful of your own language and attitudes. Don’t say: “You’re acting like a baby.” Although it is difficult, it’s important not to label a child, even if the label describes what he or she has done. You can use questions to motivate change, such as “Are your actions safe?” or “Are your words kind?” The holiday season brings out the best and worst in all of us, and if we want to support our children’s growth and development it is important that we help them learn to manage their everyday disappointments. Through loving, caring relationships we can help our children to always grow and prosper.

(This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license)

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