Gratitude and Compassion; Powerful Home Remedies for Anxiety
In this article my guest writer Jennifer Miller from Confident Parents, Confident Kids shares with us the power of replacing worries with gratitude and compassion. Another interesting tool to add to the anxiety battle. Her writing is uplifting and inspiring! To see more of her wonderful work, visit her website.
“It was a tough day, Mom,” my nine-year-old son E said with a furrowed brow right after school a few weeks back. My high alert radar went up immediately since I cannot remember a time he used that phrase. “What happened?” I said with concern. It was Election Day and there seemed a buzz of anxiety in the air. “My friends were all telling me I had to believe what they believe. And we don’t. They kept trying to convince me that they were right and I was wrong.” He shrunk into the car looking so deflated but also, deeply worried. I could almost hear his thoughts, “What if they don’t like me anymore because our family thinks differently than they do?”
Peer pressure tends to be a primary cause of anxiety whether you are nine or ninety particularly when you feel your relationships could be at risk because of what you believe or even who you are.
It just so happened that on our agenda that evening was writing thank you notes for Christmas gifts. And after the “Do we have to?!” comment, we launched into reminiscing not only about the range of generous and unique gifts E received but we also began talking about the laughter and play. Pretty soon, all his worries melted away and his face glowed with joy. He was feeling grateful for his life and for those who love him. And it was a certain cure.
When Dad came home that night for dinner, we shared stories of friends we’ve had and family members too that we’ve disagreed with on big and small issues and how they had remained our close loved ones through the years despite the differences. And we wondered if our respect for one another’s differences brought us closer together since it only affirmed that we cared enough about each other to value the relationship over any differing opinions.
Interestingly researchers confirm that fear (or that worry that stems from fear) cannot co-exist with feelings of gratitude. When consumed with anxiety, we ultimately may feel like our lives or livelihood or our very character is in danger. Though we may not have a true life-threatening situation, our brain interprets a threat to our core relationships or our identity the same as if we were about to be killed in the street. Our brain reads, “mortal danger!” But when we are examining the abundance around us including the friendships, the family members, our health and our home, it cancels out those worries. We realize we are safe and secure. We realize we are loved. And we are better able to focus on responding to challenges in ways that are constructive and positive.
In addition, compassion, an outgrowth or expression of gratitude, works to alleviate anxiety. Compassion is empathy, taking another’s perspective, noticing another’s pain or suffering and taking action to help or support the other. In any circumstance, we can look around and see others who are enduring challenges beyond our own. When we focus on helping others, we simultaneously meet our own emotional needs. Each person has an emotional desire to feel autonomy, belonging and competence. We are able to fulfill all three of these emotional needs when we feel we are significantly contributing to the betterment of someone else’s life. Daniel Goleman, the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, says our brains are hard-wired for helping others so that in order to become compassionate, we simply have to notice that another is suffering (1). And when we turn our focus, we help ourselves in the process.
So when we, as parents, notice that our children are overcome with anxiety, how can we help them turn it around through gratitude and compassion? Here are a few ideas.
Use grateful language.
Modeling is a powerful and first, teacher of our children. They observe our behaviors and words and they mimic what they see and hear. You can incorporate grateful language into your everyday talk at home and it will yield multiple benefits. First, it will help quell worries that are bubbling under the surface. Second, research shows that grateful language can contribute a greater sense of well-being and actually improve physical health. And third, you can promote essential social and emotional skills in the process. Use “I notice…” and call out specifically when you see any family member taking responsibility or being kind. “I notice you put your plates in the dishwasher without a reminder today. That’s taking responsibility – terrific!” Mention what you are grateful for in life no matter how simple or mundane. “I’m so grateful for this afternoon cup of coffee.” “I’m grateful for our warm, cozy home on this cold, rainy day.” One of the biggest marital complaints over time is taking one another’s contributions for granted. But if you begin noticing how your partner contributes, you are modeling the language you want your child to use and strengthening your appreciation for your significant other.
Develop a family gratitude habit.
Researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono, authors of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, found that families who say grateful thoughts at dinnertime, whether it’s a prayer or a reflection on the day, raised kids that were more grateful than their peers (2). We tend to have multiple opportunities in the day to complain or talk about what’s wrong and what we are trying to fix. However, how often do we engage in conversations about what we are grateful for? You can create a ritual over breakfast each morning or at dinnertime or even before bed each evening. Find a regular chance to talk about what you are grateful for and it will not only ease your worries, it will bring you closer together as a family.
Because we are problem-solvers, we tend to talk through our troubles and analyze them to see how we might fix them. But researchers Froh and Bono found that we have less opportunity to ask why we are grateful. Yet that practice – asking why – can deepen our sense of gratitude even when times are tough.
Teach about choices in our response to a problem.
Because children have so few choices over the course of a typical day (parents and teachers typically direct their activities), they are looking for ways to exert their sense of agency. And it’s important for them to do so. Making many small decisions is the way they exercise their decision-making skills to become more responsible. In addition to making choices about our actions, we also have a choice about our attitude and response to any given situation. It can help children to share your own stories of individuals who have faced incredible trials but have chosen to be grateful for their lives and to help others. One example is Victor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his time spent in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany (3). He had no control over anything related to his circumstances except his attitude. And he made the choice to be positive and grateful to contribute to the spirits of those around him. What a powerful model!
Notice other’s pain.
As parents, we can lead our children to notice other’s suffering. Instead of focusing on the gloom and doom of the news, we can ask, “How can we help? How can we make things better in our community?” The simple act of noticing when someone is struggling to get a door open at a store is a way to incite feelings of compassion in yourself and your child. And there is always something you can do to help others.
Random Acts of Kindness Week is coming soon, February 12-18. Why not use that effort to spur your own acts of kindness in family life? Whether it involves a sibling leaving a kind note for her brother or bringing soup to an ill neighbor, there are a million small chances to contribute ourselves to one another, showing compassion, if we’d only notice. Set a positive goal as a family to find one act of kindness they can do each day that week and perhaps, those actions will continue well after the week has ended.
We can significantly assist our children in learning how to cope with stress in their lives and deal with anxiety by offering them opportunities in family life to engage in grateful thinking and grateful practices through acts of compassion.
Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY, NY: Bantham Books.
Froh, J.J. & Bono, G. (2014). Making Grateful Kids. The Science of Building Character. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
Frankl, Victor. (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning. NY, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Jennifer Miller, M.Ed. has spent twenty years working with educators and families on becoming more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She writes and illustrates the blog/site, Confident Parents, Confident Kids. She is an expert for NBC’s Parent Toolkit and writes for publications like The Huffington Post, Parent Magazine and Edutopia. She speaks, coaches and conducts workshops nationally.