“My teenager is happy and well-adjusted. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of raising him so far. The problem is that he is totally ungrateful for everything I’ve done for him. How to deal with an ungrateful teenager?”
Does this sound familiar?
Parents often express similar sentiments during their child’s teenage years. They work hard to provide for their children and strive to be good parents. Yet, their teenage daughter or son do not appreciate them at all. It breaks their hearts.
Having an entitled teenager hurts. No parent wants to raise an entitled, disrespectful teenager who does not appreciate their parent’s efforts.
What is gratitude
Gratitude is the appreciation one experiences when somebody gives you good things, whether it is tangible like a gift, or intangible like kindness or help, out of altruism even when they don’t need to. It is a virtue and a moral emotion1.
Gratitude that is not freely given and motivated by some specific feeling of gratefulness will not seem genuine. It is a moral emotion that implies benevolence.
What does being grateful mean
Being grateful means to be thankful for someone who has helped or done something kind for you.
We are all familiar with the feeling of being grateful – when we receive a gift, we are grateful to the person who gave it to us. We recognize that others need not have done this, but they did it out of goodwill toward us.
Why is gratitude important
It is a wonderful feeling for parents to receive gratitude from their children. It reflects the value and love they place on their children.
The importance of gratitude in children cannot be underestimated. Gratitude a child feels for their parents can be a powerful force in their lives that can help them succeed.
Gratitude is associated with greater life satisfaction, optimism, well-being, and less depression and envy compared with less grateful people2. People who are grateful show more prosocial behavior and traits3. Additionally, gratitude is a human strength that enhances one’s personal and interpersonal relationships. Gratitude benefits society as a whole.
Why is my teenager so ungrateful
Like kindness or respect, gratitude needs to be modeled and taught.
One common mistake parents make when dealing with an ungrateful teen is to scold them, punish them or impose “natural consequences”. Taking away possessions or telling them, “I have done so much for you. Why can’t you be thankful?” will not make someone feel grateful.
To feel grateful, one needs to recognize that this source of goodness is outside help given by another person intentionally and altruistically, often at the expense of their own benefits, for which this person does not ask for anything in return.
This last part is crucial to understanding gratitude.
Let’s say one of the family members did something nice for you, but for whatever reason, you didn’t say thank you right away. Perhaps you were distracted, too tired, too excited, etc. Then this person came to you and said, “Hey, you didn’t thank me for what I did for you. You’re so entitled.” Do you still feel gratitude for this person’s “selfless” act now?
The act no longer feels altruistic, selfless, doesn’t it? They expected your appreciation and demanded it. Even though you may still be grateful for what they have done for you, being forced to thank someone doesn’t feel right, does it?
Some teenagers probably feel the same way.
When we accuse our entitled teenagers of not appreciating their cell phone or video games we provide, we feel a sense of entitlement to their gratitude. We feel they owe us something.
In most cases, they do. But when we demand it (especially with an accusatory tone of voice), any desire to express gratitude, if any, fades away.
How to deal with an ungrateful teenager
Don’t demand gratitude
Here’s the thing…
Parents decided to have kids. Kids did not decide to have parents.
Being a parent and bringing a vulnerable human being into this world means we agree to provide for and protect that person. That is a responsibility, not an act of charity.
This is not to dismiss the many heroic acts, sacrifices, and a lot of time that parents spend raising their kids, but to point out that many of the things parents do are exactly what a responsible adult would do.
Here’s a good example …
Imagine you are at a restaurant and a waiter brings you food. You thank them when the food arrives quickly. Do they deserve recognition? Of course. Should they demand recognition if you forget or are distracted?
That is the subtle difference some parents make when they lecture their teenagers for their ungrateful attitude.
Gratitude is an emotion that must be felt in order to be expressed authentically. If you want your teenager to be thankful, you cannot demand gratitude. Unless, of course, you just want them to say “thank you” heartlessly.
Point out ungratefulness respectfully
When your teenager is showing a lack of gratitude or disrespectful behavior, you can point it out without being insulting or calling names. Do not use words such as “entitled”, or “brat”.
In addition to gratitude, you are teaching them how to disagree respectfully.
As an alternative, you can ask, “Your parents just gave you gifts, but instead of being grateful, you complain about not getting enough. Why do you feel that way?”
Avoid blaming and shaming your teenager and instead ask thought-provoking questions. Help them understand what the problem is and explain kindly why they should appreciate what they have.
Instill values, not materialism
Does your teenager associate material things with your love?
Many parents use materials to make up for not having enough time to show their love for their teenagers. They are being taught that love and materials are the same thing. Instill the value of love and kindness and how it’s different from materialism 4.
Instead, make time to connect with your teenager in a meaningful way to strengthen the bond between parent and child. This should be a priority in your family life. Your teenager will listen to you more when you teach them about gratitude if you have a good relationship with them.
Help teenagers notice the kindness others have shown them
The emotions we experience help us understand the environment. Having negative emotions such as anxiety or frustration makes us more alert to potential threats. When we are positive, we are less analytical, because all we have to do is continue what we’re already doing, and nothing has to change.
To help our teenagers feel grateful, point out when things go well for them. Help them understand the reasons and people behind those occurrences.
For instance, “The lady just picked up and gave back the wallet that you dropped. That is so kind of her.”
Teach them empathy
Help your teenager develop empathy.
Empathy allows us to recognize intentional acts of kindness5. An empathic teenager understands that when someone is kind to them, they benefit even though the individual didn’t have to do it.
Empathizing with your teen when he/she is facing a negative emotion is a great way to build empathy6. Show your child that you understand what they’re going through by naming their feelings and describing the impact on them.
Help them regulate negative emotions
Being miserable and powerless over negative emotions makes it difficult to be grateful. The teen years are a time when teenage brains undergo massive changes, resulting in mood swings. Therefore, it is important to teach teenagers emotional regulation in addition to empathy.
Children develop self-regulation when their parents are responsive, nurturing, and warm. Emotion coaching by parents is also an effective way to teach emotional regulation.
Show your gratitude toward your teen
We often underestimate how much children absorb from the environment. Our children also learn things without us realizing it. They pick up our feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Therefore, practicing and valuing grateful expressions starts with parents. Parents who value gratitude will have children who are grateful too.
How can parents practice and express gratitude? The most direct way is to thank our children when they show acceptable behavior.
One common parent response is, “Why should I thank my child for doing her chores? They’re supposed to do it.”
But then, why should our teenager thank us for taking care of them? As parents, this is what we’re supposed to do, right?
Even though we do what we’re supposed to do as parents, it’s still nice when our kids acknowledge our efforts. This is also true for teenagers. Thanking them for their efforts is the best way to teach them gratitude.
Encourage your teenager to volunteer
Forging supportive social relationships depends on expressing thanks and being generous. Generosity not only helps strengthen relationships with others and cultivate gratitude, but also helps children to learn what it means to be kind to others and to appreciate kindness7.
Encourage your teenager to volunteer regularly. It is a simple act that teaches them a lot about gratitude.
Also, find ways to motivate your child to be generous. For example, they can donate toys, clothes or gifts they received from others.
It doesn’t hurt to keep a gratitude journal
A number of studies have shown that journaling can increase gratitude8. However, the results were not easily repeated in subsequent studies. Careful examinations of those research showed that the inconsistencies were due to the design of the experiments or the way volunteers were recruited9.
It doesn’t hurt to encourage your teenager to think about and write down what they feel grateful about on a regular basis, even if it isn’t a completely reliable method. This deeper thinking will prepare them to become independent adults as part of teen development and their life experience.
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- 2.Kong F, Ding K, Zhao J. The Relationships Among Gratitude, Self-esteem, Social Support and Life Satisfaction Among Undergraduate Students. J Happiness Stud. Published online April 22, 2014:477-489. doi:10.1007/s10902-014-9519-2
- 3.McCullough ME, Emmons RA, Tsang J-A. The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2002:112-127. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
- 4.Tsang J-A, Carpenter TP, Roberts JA, Frisch MB, Carlisle RD. Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences. Published online July 2014:62-66. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.009
- 5.McCullough ME, Kilpatrick SD, Emmons RA, Larson DB. Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2001:249-266. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.127.2.249
- 6.Davis CM. What Is Empathy, and Can Empathy Be Taught? Physical Therapy. Published online November 1, 1990:707-711. doi:10.1093/ptj/70.11.707
- 7.Brodie M, Martinelli M. Creating a new library for Macquarie University: are we there yet? Library Management. Published online October 30, 2007:557-568. doi:10.1108/01435120710837837
- 8.Froh JJ, Sefick WJ, Emmons RA. Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology. Published online April 2008:213-233. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2007.03.005
- 9.Froh JJ, Kashdan TB, Ozimkowski KM, Miller N. Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Published online September 2009:408-422. doi:10.1080/17439760902992464