While parents are often on the lookout for new tips and tricks on what we can do for our children to help support their development, more research is pointing to how important it is to be receiving care for ourselves. In fact, nurturing our own well-being is key to helping our children flourish.
Considering how many parents in the United States and across the world are struggling, it’s critical that we refocus our attention on ways to help moms and dads. According to the recent Stress in America 2023 nationwide survey by the American Psychological Association, parents are facing an intense amount of strain. Nearly half of parents surveyed say their stress levels are completely overwhelming on most days. Over four out of 10 parents say their stress levels make them feel numb or are so intense that they can’t function on most days.
Of course, parents need large-scale support, like paid parental leave policies and access to high-quality early child care. But tending to our social and emotional well-being with simple practices can also be an important small-scale way to nurture our individual well-being right now.
Practicing gratitude has a host of benefits for our well-being. It’s good for our happiness and life satisfaction, reduces anxiety and depression, strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and helps us sleep better. If gratitude is good for us personally, then can its benefits spill over from parents to their children and families, too? That’s the question researchers Katherine Nelson-Coffey and John Coffey explored in a recent study.
Measuring daily lives
Across one week, the researchers surveyed 270 parents in the United States (mostly white) on the gratitude they felt each day. They also surveyed parents every day on their well-being—how much they felt happiness, positive emotions like joy and love, empathic emotions like compassion and tenderness, and negative emotions like worry and anger.
In addition, each day parents were asked about their feelings of life satisfaction and meaning in their lives, as well as how connected they felt to others, how much they felt competent with taking on and mastering challenges, and how much autonomy they felt, like having freedom to do things their own way.
The researchers captured parents’ daily family functioning every day for a week, as well. They surveyed how much closeness parents felt toward their children each day. They also asked parents to write about a time each day—easy or hard—when they provided care to their child. The researchers used these daily diaries to measure how much parents’ interactions with their children were marked by conflict, support—warmth and kindness—and challenges while providing care.
In analyzing these data, researchers found that parents tended to experience greater daily well-being—fewer negative emotions, and more positive and empathic emotions, life satisfaction, meaning in their lives, connectedness to others, and autonomy—on days when they felt more gratitude than usual, regardless of how much daily happiness they felt.
What’s more, parents tended to feel greater closeness and less conflict with their children on days when they felt more gratitude than usual, regardless of how challenging it was for them to care for their children each day.
These findings suggest that gratitude is good for parents no matter how much happiness we’re experiencing. It also can be important for our well-being no matter how easy or hard of a time we’re having with parenting each day.
Gratitude can fill your cup
In a second related study, the researchers randomly assigned over 600 parents in the United States (again, mostly white) to three different groups. The first group was asked to write a general gratitude letter to someone. In the second group, parents wrote a “safe haven” gratitude letter about someone who made them feel accepted, cherished, or protected. The last group of parents wrote about their activities from the past week, which served as a control.
Immediately after the writing activity, parents were surveyed on their well-being: positive emotions, empathic emotions, negative emotions, meaning in life, connectedness to others, competence, and autonomy. They were also surveyed on how close they felt toward their children.
One week later, parents were surveyed on their well-being and closeness again. Additionally, they answered questions about their happiness, satisfaction with their parenting, and their child’s positive and challenging behaviors.
The results? Parents who wrote either type of gratitude letter tended to experience greater positive emotions immediately, and, in turn, experienced greater well-being—greater positive emotions, empathic emotions, happiness, meaning, autonomy, competence, and connectedness, and fewer negative emotions—one week later.
They also experienced greater closeness to their child, satisfaction with their parenting, and positive child behaviors, and fewer challenging child behaviors, one week later.
These studies highlight that gratitude can help parents by “filling up their cups” with positive emotions, which can broaden their perspectives and replenish their internal resources to be their best possible selves. When parents’ well-being is nurtured, their families can reap the benefits through a ripple effect.
“Our research suggests that parents can improve their well-being, relationships with their children, and family functioning, not necessarily by engaging in more intense parenting practices or increasing engagement with their children, but by practicing simple positive activities—namely, gratitude,” explain Nelson-Coffey and Coffey.
As parents, we’re already busy, so adding more to a long list of parenting dos and don’ts in our daily lives can add a lot more stress. For a lot of us, a simple gratitude practice like writing a gratitude letter or in a gratitude journal, or just taking a few moments for a gratitude reflection at the end of the workday, can be doable and effective in strengthening our own well-being and family relationships.