If you believe what you see on TV, you might think that adolescents are selfish, narcissistic, and judgmental of adults, their siblings, their communities... basically anything around them. While adolescence certainly does come with windows of chaos and conflict, we shouldn’t presume that young people are either incapable of gratitude or inattentive to the many things around them for which they are thankful. Instead of presuming them to be ingrates, offer them opportunities to articulate in meaningful ways the gratitude they do, in fact, feel.
Of course, this comes first by modeling in ourself. Steer clear of conflict for conflict’s sake with your teen, and instead aim for your role to be one of quiet observation. You can offer feedback, but you can’t force young people to value the same things you do. Instead, this is a time to respect their need to differentiate themselves from you and to help them navigate that process in a way which builds more bridges than burns them.
If you want your teen to listen better, for example, you need to model being a good listener yourself. If you want them to be more respectful, you need to model respectfulness yourself. And if you want them to be more grateful, you need first to model gratitude.
Engage your teen in defining for themselves regular practices of gratitude. Knowing that learners of this age may question the knowledge and authority of adults, offer them the data that describes the benefits, emotionally, intellectually, socially, and beyond to people for whom thankfulness is a daily practice. Ask them to identify the routines they may be open to trying out, and just as you would with children in the second plane, circle back regularly to check in and see how it’s going.
Appreciating that learners at this age are aware of and interested in social justice, enlist your teen in regular, weekly or, at the very least, monthly, family service activities. Be careful not to use these opportunities to berate your child or belittle them for “how much better they have it.” Rather, establish a norm of service as something you do simply because it’s the right thing to do. Then create opportunities for conversation afterwards about what your family experienced together. If you present service as a didactic tool to force your child to appreciate the things they have, you may be surprised to elicit exactly the opposite reaction. But if you engage in service with your teen, modeling reflection during your shared discussions before and afterwards, you are more likely to evoke an awareness of privilege that your teen might otherwise be resistant to acknowledge.
Finally, while you should not give up on the expectation of formal expressions of thankfulness to the people who regularly help your team to thrive, like teachers, supports staff, and others, you should let your teen decide for themselves how they would most like to convey that gratitude. One young person’s authentic expression of thankfulness may be a thank-you note. Another’s may be a task or act of kindness. Another may chose to pay it forward. Alerting your teen to the need for these expressions, but letting them determine the ones that are most meaningful to them will help to establish these practices as habits instead of have-tos.
Remember, presume the best. Like most of us as adults, teens don’t want to be told how or what to feel. But they are acutely aware of the people around them, including the times when those people make their lives better. Let go of your heavy hand, and instead, walk alongside your teen as they establish practices on which they will rely on years to come.