Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Teaching Kids About Gratitude: An Ages and Stages Guide

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It’s the stuff of which parental nightmares are made. At a time of year that’s supposed to be all about gratitude, your child decides to demonstrate how extraordinarily ungrateful she is for the Thanksgiving dinner your parents or your in-laws just spent hours, if not days, preparing.

It’s a cringe-worthy moment that can have you wondering if you are destined to raise the world’s most ungrateful kid….

The good news is that the situation isn’t nearly as hopeless as it may feel.

Children can—and do—learn how to express gratitude.

I shed some light on this seemingly mysterious process in my weekend parenting column for CBC Radio.

What follows are the key takeaways from that column.

The case for teaching kids about gratitude

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty and take an ages-and-stages guide to gratitude, here’s a quick refresher course on the benefits of teaching kids about gratitude.

As it turns out, the benefits are considerable. Learning to recognize and act on feelings of gratitude is pretty much the recipe for a happy life — and it’s been that way for a very long time. Over 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Cicero described gratitude as “not only the greatest of virtues” but “the parent of all the other [virtues],” in recognition of the far-reaching benefits of expressing gratitude.

And as for those benefits? We’re talking better health, better happiness, and better relationships. As the authors of a 2014 study published in School Psychology Review put it: “Teaching habits of gratitude to youth could affect their mental health and positive behaviour for years to come.” So it’s definitely worth the effort.

Teaching kids about gratitude: an ages-and-stages guide

If you’re expecting your toddler to express genuine gratitude (as opposed to, say, merely going through the motions of saying thank you), you’re going be terribly disappointed. According to child development experts, it takes time for children to truly understand what it means to feel grateful—and to know how to express that emotion to another person.

You see, in order to feel grateful to another person you have to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes — to understand the sacrifices they might have made, big or small, to do this kind thing for you. Children aren’t capable of that kind of perspective taking until around the age of four, so they really aren’t capable of expressing genuine gratitude until that time. And, even then, that their understanding of gratitude is still very much a work-in-progress.

Then, starting at around age seven, a child’s understanding of gratitude deepens. That’s when children become capable of understanding more complex emotions, like jealous, pride, and — yes — gratitude.

And as their capacity to understand the feelings and motivations of other people continues to improve as they move through the teen years, so too does their capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude. They might suddenly recognize how much family time their sports coach is sacrificing for the good of the team and be moved to express gratitude to the coach for that sacrifice.

How forcing kids to say “thank you” can backfire

Parents sometimes feel pressured to say things to their children like: “Don’t forget to say thank you to Grandma!” But, as it turns out, it’s not a particularly effective way to help kids to understand and express feelings of gratitude.

If you force a child to go through the motions of expressing gratitude when he’s not actually feeling that emotion, spitting out that “thank you” is going to start to feel like a chore. Sure, your child may go through the motions, if only to avoid getting into trouble, but it’s unlikely that this new gratitude habit will stick — or at least not in any meaningful way. You’re merely teaching your child to fake an emotion that he’s not actually feeling — as opposed to encouraging him to recognize and act on genuine feelings of gratitude.

Toronto mother of four Louise Gleeson has made a conscious effort to steer clear of this approach: “I want my children to learn about gratitude by experiencing it firsthand — as opposed to being told they should be feeling it,” she explains.

What actually helps kids to acquire an “attitude of gratitude”

Worried that you’re destined to raise the world’s least grateful child? You’ll be relieved to hear that there are things you can do to gently nudge the process along. You might want to encourage your child to notice how much time, energy, and/or effort some other person put into doing something kind thing – and to reflect on the ways they themselves benefitted from this act of kindness. According to the research, that’s what helps children to develop a sense of gratitude: being giving the chance to peek behind the curtain and discover for themselves just how gratitude works.

Of course, one of the most effective ways to teach children about gratitude is to simply adopt an “attitude of gratitude” as a family: to allow gratitude to provide a backdrop to daily living — the lens through which your family engages with the world. This is something I was speaking with Vancouver mother Angela Crocker about recently. She told me that the secret to teaching kids about gratitude is to model it, talk about it, and look for opportunities to live it as a family. “In our family, we have quiet expressions of appreciation. It’s just part of everyday living. We say thank you when we pass the salt. We say thank you when we help each other. And sometimes it’s not even a matter of using the words ‘thank you.’ It’s a physical expression, so it might be in the form of a hug or someone bringing you a cup of tea. It’s not really a formal thank you, but it’s understood that it’s an act of appreciation.”

So we don’t have to make these conversations about gratitude something big and complicated. And, as Angela noted, we don’t always have to express that gratitude in words. We can express it via a well-timed cup of tea!

Some fun activities to spark conversations about gratitude

Looking for some fun Thanksgiving weekend activities to help spark conversations about gratitude? Here are a few activities to try with your kids.

Got a kid who likes to write? Think about starting a family gratitude journal that you update on special occasions or consider writing a letter of gratitude to someone who did something kind or thoughtful for your family. (Tip: For added impact, deliver the letter in person or via video chat, so your child will have the opportunity to see the recipient’s reaction.)

Got a kid who loves doing crafts? Consider creating a family gratitude collage (a collage of photos, drawings, and words that capture all the people and things you are grateful for) or making a gratitude paper chain (a chain made of individual paper links spelling out all the things you’re grateful for) or a gratitude paper quilt (similar to the paper chain, except in this case, you’re writing those words of gratitude on a series of squares and then assembling those squares into a quilt).

Got a kid who is really into math? Make a gratitude graph! This is a fun exercise to try when you have a large number of extended family members and friends present in the same place at one time—like around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Each person records the things they’re grateful for on a series of sticky notes – and then you cluster everyone’s sticky notes together to create a graph highlighting family gratitude trends: “Seven people are grateful for this delicious dinner, six people are grateful for warm sweaters on a chilly day, five people are grateful that we’re all together, one person is grateful that the neighbour’s dog is finally finished barking….” That kind of thing.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the activities themselves aren’t magical. The activities alone won’t teach kids how to feel and express gratitude. That’s your job as the grownup: to journey alongside them as they make their own gratitude discoveries. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place as a family? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

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Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

An Interview with Sharon Saline, author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew

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Every couple of months, I have the opportunity to guest co-host a Twitter chat that focuses on learning and attention differences.

The chats, which are organized by Understood.org, attract a passionate group of parents, teachers, and other professionals who are eager to share strategies and resources for supporting children with ADHD and other learning challenges.

That’s how I met Dr. Sharon Saline — an enthusiastic participant in many of these chats.

Sharon is a psychotherapist and the author of a brand new book, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Sharon about the many misconceptions that children with ADHD (and their parents!) have to contend with on an ongoing basis.

What follows are the highlights of our conversation.

Ann Douglas: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about ADHD?

Sharon Saline: That ADHD doesn’t exist. That people with ADHD just need to try harder. That ADHD is a false diagnosis because people with ADHD can pay attention to things that they are really interested in….

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The ADHD brain is a ‘now’ or ‘not now’ brain.
— Sharon Saline

Ann Douglas: I’ve definitely encountered each of those misconceptions over the years, while advocating on behalf of one or more of my children. The third misconception that you mentioned is one that I really struggled with when my children were newly diagnosed. I had a hard time understanding why the very same son who struggled to maintain his focus long enough to remember to put on a pair of socks could spend hours pouring over a software manual or playing a video game. What would you say to parents like me who may be trying to make sense of this apparent contradiction?

Sharon Saline: The ADHD brain is able to hyper-focus on things that it finds interesting and compelling…. If something is inherently uninteresting, those of us who do not have ADHD are able to say to ourselves, “This is kind of boring, but when it’s over, I’m going to be glad it’s done.” We’re able to project into the future, in other words. People with ADHD — and, in particular, children with ADHD who have brains that are still developing — simply aren’t capable of making that kind of forward projection yet. Their brains are focused on the rewards that they’re getting right now. That’s because the ADHD brain is a “now” or “not now” brain. The reward that a child might experience an hour from now when an uninteresting homework task is finished simply doesn’t matter because the current moment [when the homework is being done] is so unpleasant.

Ann Douglas: That’s incredibly profound. I wish someone had explained that to me a decade or two ago. It would have made it so much easier to understand what my children were experiencing (they were doing the best that they could with this skills and abilities they had at the time) and, at the same time, it would have encouraged me to remain hopeful about the future (to recognize that my children’s abilities to manage their ADHD could — and, in fact, did! — improve remarkably over time). Holding on to that kind of hope is really important when you’re in the ADHD trenches as a family. Thank you for writing a book that will help families to hold on to that hope and for having this conversation with me. It has been such a pleasure to get to know you and to witness the compassion and empathy that you bring to your work with children and their parents.

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Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place as a family? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

An Interview with Deborah Reber, author of Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World

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Every once in a while, I spotlight the work of an author that I think you, as a reader of this blog, might want to know about. Today, I want to introduce you to Deborah Reber, founder of TILT Parenting (a website, podcast, and community) and the author of a number of books including, most recently, Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World.

I first learned about Debbie’s work back when I was hard at work on the US edition of Parenting Through the Storm. I listened to a number of episodes of the TILT Parenting podcast for ideas and inspiration while I was writing and then, after the book was published, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be a guest on Debbie’s podcast. (Debbie and I talked about the challenges of dealing with the bias and stigma that can be directed toward a child with some sort of neuro-developmental difference.) I was impressed by Debbie’s empathy for both parents and kids: her willingness to speak openly about the fact that being a parent can be hard — just as being a kid can be hard, too. Anyway, I knew she’d have some wise and reassuring words to offer at back-to-school time — a time of year that can be particularly challenging for “differently wired” kids and their parents, which is why I invited her to participate in this brief Q&A.

Ann Douglas: Why is back-to-school season a challenging time of year for “differently-wired kids”?

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Debbie Reber: Any sort of big transition can be especially tricky for differently wired kids because the current flow is disrupted, in this case the summer holiday rhythm, and it’s time to establish new routines, from bedtimes and wake-up calls to after-school activities and homework. But even more than that, there are just so many wildcards—teacher fit, classroom dynamics, workload, stretching of executive functioning muscles, the social scene, and more. Pair that with the unpredictability of spending the day among a bunch of peers with their own personalities, quirks, and individual way of showing up in the classroom, and it’s easy to see why this season can be incredibly disregulating!

Ann: Why is it a challenging time of year for their parents?

Debbie: As parents, we are often facing more than our share of dread and anxiety about how things will unfold, including uncertainty about how to best set our child up for a successful year or how much of a heads up to give new teachers, if any, about our kids' neurodifferences. We hope this is the year things will click—our child will make a great friend or their lagging executive functioning skills will have a growth spurt or they'll land a teacher who appreciates who our child is—but we’re still burdened by the leftover baggage from unmet expectations and low moments of past grades. Lastly, our child’s anxieties may mean trickier or more intense behaviour at home, which can feel overwhelming and often leads to less than brilliant parenting moments.

Ann: What practical things can parents do to help ease the anxiety for themselves and their kids?

Debbie: A great habit for families to build is proactive problem solving for transitions before they occur. Make a list of everyone’s concerns or questions (children’s and parents’) and work together to create solutions in advance. Having a plan is half the battle as it defends against those in-the-moment stressors that can be so chaotic and tough. Writing out or talking through new routines and schedules, and even doing some “practice drills” or role playing, can also help alleviate anxieties, especially with younger kids. Lastly, as parents, we can reframe our mindset to one of openness and “curiosity” instead of concern and worry. This shift alone can change our energy surrounding the transition which will invariably influence our sensitive kids.

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Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place as a family? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters:
 Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Finding Your Way in an Empty (or Emptier) Nest

The transition to an empty nest can feel gut-wrenching and/or disorienting at first -- but you can find your way over time. 

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It's the little things that tend to do you in: the sight of a too-empty refrigerator; the fact that you're no longer tripping over a small mountain of running shoes each time you attempt to enter or exit the front door; and the silence that greets you if you happen to be brave enough to step foot in your child's now-empty room. 

The transition to an empty nest (or an emptier nest, as the case may be) can be a rough one, especially during the early days. Sure, you've known this day was coming from the moment you became a parent, but it can catch you off guard nonetheless. ("How did the past 18 years manage to fly by so quickly?" you ask yourself as you hug your child goodbye and exit his dorm room.)

It doesn't seem all that long ago that you were trying to wrap your head around the fact that you were about to become a parent -- and now this chapter in your life is coming to a close. Or so it seems....

But is it? Are you obsolete? Have you actually outlived your usefulness as a parent? Or could it be that you're about to enter an exciting new stage together? (Or at least once you're finally able to stop crying?!!!) Based on what I've learned over the past ten years while watching my own four kids exit the nest, I would have to say it's definitely the latter. This isn't the end. It's more like a beginning. There are great times ahead. But you have to allow yourself to feel what ever it is you're feeling before you can find your way to that happier place.

And here's something else you need to know: there’s no right or wrong way to feel as you weather this milestone transition in your life as a parent. Your feelings may surprise you. You may feel more devastated or more relieved than you had ever imagined yourself feeling. And that's okay!

It's also pretty common to experience a mix of emotions. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnott, 84 percent of new empty nesters report missing their kids; 90 percent say they’re happy their kids are more independent; and 60 percent report that they’re looking forward to having more time to spend with a partner or spouse. 

Looking for some strategies to help you manage that cocktail of emotions? Here are a few tips, based on what I've experienced firsthand and what I've learned from other parents. (Note: If you prefer to listen to the audio version of these tips, you can tune into my recent interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.)

Give yourself a chance to feel all the feelings

Resist the temptation to fast-forward through these emotions -- and know that the intensity of these emotions will start to ease over time. 

Talk to other parents who’ve weathered this transition and come out the other side

Look for people who will help to reassure you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually an ending, but more like a beginning: the start of an exciting new chapter in your life and a brand new relationship with your child.

Offer that same kind of support to other parents

Reach out to other empty nesters you know who might be having an exceptionally tough time. And be sure to make a point of looking out for the dads as well as the moms. After all, it's not as if moms have a monopoly on experiencing that aching feeling of loneliness when they stumble into a child’s now-empty bedroom. Dads feel it, too. And we need to ensure that they know that it's okay to talk about it as well.

Set a new goal for yourself

Remember all those years when you longed for a bit of time to yourself? Now you've got that time. So set a goal for yourself. Sign up for a course, acquire a new hobby, train for your first 5K, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve always wanted to go – perhaps with someone you haven’t had the chance to spend time with in a while. In other words, embrace the freedom that comes from having a bit more time to yourself and for all the other important relationships in your life. Not only will this help you feel better (or, at a minimum, a little less awful): you'll also be modelling healthy resilience for your kids. You'll be demonstrating your ability to embrace new opportunities as opposed to, say, moping around the house -- or turning your kids' empty bedrooms into shrines! 

Stay connected in a way that works for your child and for you

Look for opportunities to maintain your connection to your child -- and don’t feel that you need to apologize for doing so. At a time when parents are frequently (and often unfairly) lambasted for being “helicopter parents,” you might be hesitant to provide your child with the behind-the-scenes emotional support and connection that actually encourages first-year college and university students to thrive.

Of course, what you say (and how you say it) matters a lot. You want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging. You want to express full confidence in your child’s ability to cope with whatever curveballs happen to come her way. And, finally, you want to remind her that she can reach out to you for support at any time, because family is forever and your love is unconditional. 

All that said, it’s important to recognize that some students will welcome more day-to-day contact with their parents than others. Some will benefit from a steady stream of encouraging messages from back home -- while others may want to pull away a little at first as they dive into the carnival-like excitement of campus life. Let your child take the lead in determining the frequency and mode of communication (text messages versus phone calls or face-to-face visits), but don’t be afraid to reach out if he or she drops the communication ball. Odds are your child will welcome a semi-regular stream of “thinking of you” messages from back home. (According to a December 2015 study conducted by the BMO Wealth Institute, over half of Canadian parents reported having contact with their young adults every day or almost every day. And young adults welcome that contact, with just 23% complaining that their parents were overly involved in their lives.)

Ultimately, that contact is good for them—and it’s good for you, too. Research shows that life satisfaction increases for parents during the empty nest stage for those parents are in frequent contact with their young adult child. So don't feel pressured to pull away as you enter this new phase in your relationship with your child. Your child still needs you as much as ever. They just happen to need you differently, that's all.


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: That White Space on Your Calendar? It's Called Breathing Room

That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.

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Back-to-school season also happens to be extra-curricular activity sign-up season: that time of year when it is tempting to sign your kids (and yourself!) up for every conceivable activity. Everything sounds so exciting and so much fun. And it is -- as long as it doesn't tip your family into complete overload mode. 

Last year at this time, I shared some strategies for resisting the temptation to fill each and every square of your family's calendar with all kinds of fabulous activities.

This year, I'm going to build on that earlier post by talking about the benefits of leaving a little white space on your calendar -- of allowing your child to experience a healthy amount of boredom.

The upside of boredom

In our culture, we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing -- as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it isn't actually something to be feared and dreaded? What if it's actually more like a gift? 

As it turns out, there are at least three significant benefits to allowing our kids -- and ourselves -- to be bored, at least according to the growing body of research on the science of boredom. 

1. Boredom encourages creativity

This happens because being bored is such a deeply uncomfortable feeling for us humans. Our brains will do pretty much anything to avoid it. You've no doubt experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you were stuck in a meeting room, waiting for someone else to arrive: someone who was running really, really late. As the minutes kept ticking away, you grew increasingly restless, and, out of utter, sheer desperation, you looked for a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly your eyes hit upon a stash of office supplies. And, before you knew it, you were making a chain out of paper clips or a patchwork quilt out of sticky notes. Anything to relieve the boredom! 

It's not just you, by the way, who finds boredom incredibly uncomfortable. One group of people who were participating in a scientific study about boredom actually voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks as a means of relieving those very same feelings! It was either sit there and do nothing or give yourself an electric shock. They opted for the electric shock!

The challenge for most of us these days is to actually allow ourselves to sit with these feelings of boredom and to encourage our kids to do the same. If we reach for our cell phones as a way to relieve those feelings of boredom, we miss out on the opportunities to exercise the creative parts of our brain. Likewise, if we rush in too soon to solve the so-called "problem" of boredom for our kids, we rob them of these opportunities, too. 

This is something I was speaking with Christine Hennebury about recently for a recent CBC Radio parenting column. She's a creativity coach and mother of two and a firm believer in the benefits of boredom. Here's what she had to say: "Teaching our kids to be okay with the discomfort of being bored can help us to gain a little mental real estate for ourselves -- and I think it's good problem-solving practice for them. The more problems they solve on their own -- including the problem of being bored and the ability to get comfortable with that uncertainty of 'What do I do next?' -- the fewer problems that we will have to solve for them." 

So you get a break.

The kids get to work on their problem-solving skills.

It's pretty much the ultimate win-win!

2. Being bored can reconnect you with your sense of purpose.

When you're bored, your mind starts to wander in a good way that encourages broader and more expansive thinking. Suddenly, you're able to see the broader perspective, the so-called big picture, as opposed to narrowly fixating on the minutiae of daily living. You're able to connect the dots between past, present, and future, something that allows you to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from your life. You know who you are, where you've been, and where you're headed. Your life actually starts to feel like it makes sense!

3. Being bored can make you a kinder person.

This is one of the more fascinating findings I stumbled across while pouring through the research on boredom while writing my forthcoming book. Spending time in a state of boredom actually encourages altruism, empathy, and acts of kindness. Researchers think that this is the direct result of the very thing we were just talking about: the fact that being bored encourages us to engage in deeper and more expansive thinking -- the kind of deeper thinking that allows us to become the best and wisest version of ourselves. We're no longer living our lives on autopilot, in a state of perpetual distraction. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us in life, like our relationships with other people. And that, in turn, encourages us to come up with creative ways of nurturing those relationships. We're so much happier and healthier as a result.

Helping kids to get comfortable with being bored

So now that we've talked about the benefits of boredom, let's talk about what it takes to help kids to become comfortable with the feeling of being bored and to figure out how to solve the problem of boredom for themselves. 

As parents, we can help them to understand that boredom is actually a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. They need to know that the restless feeling we experience when we're really, really bored is designed to spur us to action. It's like an error message from your brain telling your body, "Hey! We've got to do something differently here!" The challenge is to figure out what that "different" might be. Maybe it means switching from a boring task (like mindlessly surfing the Internet) to a more interesting task (like doing art or solving a puzzle). And sometimes it means finding a way to make a boring task less boring (perhaps listening to some music while you're unloading the dishwasher).

And, of course, this is a skill we can practice in our own lives as well -- because being a grownup can be pretty boring at times, too. Think about it. Folding laundry is never going to rank up there as one of life's top ten most thrilling experiences. Ditto for washing dishes or, if you're a parent, listening to a six year old rhyme off an endless stream of "knock, knock" jokes. 

When boredom becomes a problem

Of course, as with anything else in life, you can get too much of a good thing -- even when that "good thing" means being bored. Extreme amounts of boredom can trigger unhealthy or even risky behaviours. Not only is boredom associated with mindless eating: it's also linked to substance abuse, bad driving, risky sex, problem gambling, and even political extremism. And it has been linked to poor grades, increased dropout rates, and difficulty managing impulses. 

That last bit brings to mind the time when two of my boys decided to relieve their feelings of boredom by playing with the can of spray paint they found in the next door neighbour's garage. As they discovered, curiosity may be the cure for boredom, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. Or, as boredom researcher Andreas Elipidorou likes to put it: "The interesting isn't always beneficial." (Fortunately, the neighbours were pretty understanding.)

So you definitely don't want your kids to be bored 24/7. Extra-curricular activities can be a godsend -- in moderation.

It's about finding that sweet spot between total boredom and total overload.

That's where the magic happens as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.