There are a number of celebrations across the globe that take place each November. Think, All Saint Day/Day of the Dead celebrated throughout Mexico (1 November), Guy Fawkes Night celebrated in New Zealand and in United Kingdom (5 November), Armistice Day/Remembrance Day, a memorial day recognised world-wide to honour the war dead (11 November) and of course in the United States (and Canada) there is Thanksgiving Day. It is this later celebration about pausing to count our blessings to give thanks that made us think that it is a good time to revisit gratitude and to reflect on the power of gratitude for stepfamilies.
As we have said before, gratitude is about recognising and acknowledging what you have – no matter how much or how little that may be. For such a small thing, gratitude can be immensely powerful in the world of stepfamilies. Expressing gratitude (we mean genuinely being grateful) has the ability to change our perspective – about family, about relationships, about boundaries, thoughts, feelings and about life in general. It can help to shift the focus away from petty, day-to-day annoyances to a more positive or helpful view of the big picture and of self-awareness.
Stepfamilies by definition mean accepting a certain lack of control – over facets of everyday life, over the expectations and behaviour of others and over whether you are loved and accepted by persons within your family but with whom you have no blood ties. Whether we, as stepparents, like it or not there is also always another person that needs to be considered in family dynamics and interactions. Our step kids other parent. And, whether that the other parent is actively on the scene or not, their presence (in your home and in your family) can be keenly felt.
When we are firmly planted in things we can’t control, the ‘wrongness’ and ‘unfairness’ of it all has a way of allowing a whole host of negative feelings – impatience, intolerance, resentment, frustration, negative judgement and anger –to invade our consciousness and dominate our thoughts and conversations. Now given that there is a growing body of research out there that suggests that negative emotions and thoughts, if left unchecked, can make you physically sick or can turn into a more permanent disposition or habitual outlook on life, wallowing in negative feelings for long periods of time is probably not the best option for yourself or for your family. Especially when something as simple as gratitude may be an antidote to the negative effects of persistent negative emotions. Think about it:
Gratitude reduces depression. Dr. Robert Emmons, a scientific expert on gratitude and author of Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and wellbeing. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases our happiness and reduces depression.
Gratitude enhances compassion and reduces aggression. Research led by Dr. C. Nathan Dewall of the University of Kentucky, A Grateful Heart is a Non-Violent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence, shows that ‘grateful people are not simply nicer than others, they are also less aggressive’.
Gratitude improves self-esteem. Research conducted by Dr. Lin Chin-Che published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences in 2015 finds higher levels of gratitude associated with higher levels of self-esteem. Gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than feeling bitter or resentful toward people who have better jobs or more money – a factor linked to low self-esteem – grateful people are able to appreciate other achievements.
Gratitude reduces stress and increases resilience. Years of research has shown gratitude reduces stress, but it may also have a role in overcoming trauma. A 2009 study by Dr Lauren Vernon and colleagues, Proactive Coping, Gratitude, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in College Women, found that women with higher levels of post-trauma gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Acknowledging all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – encourages positive coping and resilience.
Being grateful, however, isn’t something that comes easy.
It is something everyone needs to practice to get good at. One way to start is by keeping a gratitude journal or making gratitude lists. Regularly recording and writing down a list of events/occurrences and why these events made you feel grateful, happy or content, can lower stress levels and induce a sense of calm. Now while starting to write a gratitude journal or list may seem challenging and just another thing for you to do in an already busy with life, as noted above there are clear benefits to practising gratitude. And the more you do it, the more obvious those benefits become.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
Be explicit. When expressing your gratitude, the more specific you are about why you feel grateful the better. For example, writing that you are grateful that your stepson took out the rubbish without being asked works a great deal better than noting you are a grateful because he is a nice kid.
Be persistent. For something to become a habit, it needs to be done regularly. Only being grateful when things are going your way or you are in a good mood (whilst easier) just isn’t enough. Setting time aside each day, even just 10-15 minutes every night, helps make gratefulness a part of your daily routine.
You don’t have to go deep. What you are thankful for can be as simple as “getting to drink your cup of morning coffee before it went cold” or “being able to leave work at 4pm instead of 5pm last Monday” or even “that the kids ate the chicken nuggets you cooked for their dinner without complaining.” What you are grateful for will differ from everyone else and depend on the day, your mood, or what is going on in your family at that point in time.
Go digital. Traditionally gratitude journals are kept using pen and paper notes books. But there are various digital gratitude journals available to use, that can help cultivate a habit of recording that which we are most thankful for in our lives. For example ‘Gratitude Journal’ .
Give it away. Writing a gratitude list in itself will help you feel more positive about yourself and your relationships. But if you want to increase the good-vibes than share the thanks. If you are grateful for something your partner or stepchild has done, tell them. Sharing your thankful thoughts will help you feel more connected and in turn will improve your stepfamily relationships.
Accept the bad with the good. Not every day is bright and shiny. Stepfamilies, like all families, have difficult and bad times. Practising gratitude will not make all the tough times disappear. But it is during those challenging periods when finding the opportunity or lesson to be learned can be a life-saver. If you are really struggling to identify something to be thankful for, check out these some gratitude-inducing prompts here.
Find the good. Instead of sinking into a sense of righteousness and injustice try to find the good. We know that it sucks when your stepchild can’t see how hard you are trying to connect with them or make them feel comfortable in your home. In this scenario take the time to recognise (and be thankful) that making an effort helps your self-esteem and your actions are greatly appreciated by your partner (even if your stepchild doesn’t respond in the way you wanted them to).
Gratitude can be powerful.
It can help move stepparents from feeling powerless, stuck or even bitter to appreciating the uniqueness of their stepfamily and all that comes with it. Next time you need help getting through the rough patches that inevitably accompany stepfamily life we say give gratitude a go. Recognising and acknowledging the good and positive things you have and talking about it with those you care about, whilst not easy, has the power to change your world….. I mean really, what have you got to lose?