Learning to practice gratitude is more than just a nice thing to do. It can make you more resilient for whatever the future holds, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights.
“Studies show that if we tend to look at things negatively, our brain continues on this path and this is the way habits are formed. This is how we learn to feel resentment. But gratitude is the antidote to bitterness. Gratitude cleanses and is therapeutic,” says Dr. Thomas.
Taking time each day to practice gratitude helps your brain learn to recognize the positive, balancing any automatic pessimism. “It doesn’t mean you are denying how challenging your day was, but it’s recognizing how you have grown from the experience,” she says.
As the parent of a child with autism, you have already experienced worry and uncertainty, perhaps even for years. Your child’s autism diagnosis provides a starting point for accessing the therapy and services your child needs. That’s knowledge you can be thankful for, Dr. Thomas says.
Why gratitude takes practice
It may seem like some people are naturally more grateful than others. In truth, gratitude comes with practice. We have survival instincts to thank for this.
“It’s the nature of the mind to be negative and critical. Your brain is more likely to keep you alive if you are skeptical and are looking for red flags,” explains Dr. Thomas. “In the nervous system, the mind and the gut, it’s very important to know if there is danger.”
While humans in the developed world may no longer need to worry about being attacked by a lurking tiger, for instance, our brains haven’t caught up to the fact that these dangers no longer exist. Our brains continue to be primed for dangers, so we tend to react negatively to everyday situations, even if they aren’t life-threatening.
When we get enmeshed in negative thoughts, our minds begin to believe the negativity. And, for a parent of a child with autism, a positive, yet realistic, perspective — that includes plenty of gratitude, where you can find it — can make all the difference.
“Autism offers unique challenges for parents and it can be a journey, depending upon your child’s needs. If you learn to focus on the journey, rather than the end goal, you are more able to fill your heart with all of the accomplishments that happen along the way,” explains Dr. Thomas. “You can learn to be grateful for the smaller things.”
If your child is nonverbal and uses an assistive device, for instance, you might only focus on the end goal of your child attaining vocal speech. “If you are able to be grateful for that device as an interim tool, it’s a shift in your attitude, which leads to an actual physical shift in your brain,” says Dr. Thomas, adding that each time you acknowledge what you are grateful for, you’re training your brain to adopt a positive perspective — and over time, your brain will do this more automatically.
How to practice gratitude
In the thick of it, gratitude can be a challenge to muster, so remember you have a choice in how you perceive the world. “The pink sky at dawn is there whether you acknowledge it or not. You can choose to see it and be grateful for its beauty,” Dr. Thomas says.
When you apply this perspective to your role as a parent of a child with autism, you’re not discounting the challenges you face, but you are allowing yourself to recognize what you can be grateful for in the process. You’re not viewing everything through a negative lens that keeps you from being able to see the whole picture.
“It helps to learn to separate yourself from negative thoughts,” she says. “If you believe that things aren’t going well or improving for your child as quickly as you’d like, try to separate yourself from that thought so you can see more clearly what else is going on, like the journey itself.”
If you recognize that your thought is just a thought, not necessarily accurate and possibly more critical of a situation than is helpful, you can avoid buying in to that thought and any related feelings, like sadness, says Dr. Thomas. In this way, you move forward with a focus on what you value, like helping your child through the journey.
Use whatever tool you need to get started and build the habit. Here are some suggestions from Dr. Thomas:
- Jot down on a strip of paper what you are grateful for, then pop it into a jar. Reflect on how many slips of paper are in the jar. (You can repeat your gratitude!)
- Set a timer on your phone and several times a day. stop what you are doing to reflect on what you are grateful for in that moment. It helps if the timer is a beautiful chime.
- Create a gratitude journal.
- Write on a calendar what you feel thankful for. If you skipped yesterday, write two today.
- Ask your partner what they’re grateful for each day. Then share your own gratitude.
“The best part about this is it doesn’t even require your buy-in. It’s a practice. You’re training your brain to think about something different. When you are in a rut, your practice will help you get out of it,” Dr. Thomas says.
Consider your gratitude practice as a way to balance negative thoughts. It’s not realistic to always be positive, but if you feel off-balance, observe your own thoughts and comments, suggests Dr. Thomas. You’ll benefit from the balance you find and your gratitude practice will help buffer you against future challenges.
“Knowing that you can always be grateful for something will help you grow and help you build resilience to future challenges,” she says. “Yes, life can be challenging, but you know you love your child and you have each other and you will get through it together.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA services for children and teens. Visit thehealinghaven.net.