What To Do When Your Kids Aren’t Grateful—5 Steps from Expectations to Agreement

by | Aug 17, 2020

Let’s say you planned a very special gift for your son or daughter’s 16th birthday. You are bursting with excitement as you lead them out to the driveway for the big reveal. Sitting there, all bright and shiny under a gigantic red bow, is a new car. You yell “Happy Birthday!” and toss them the keys. They look at the keys, the car, then you, and with a forced smile they mutter a quick “Thanks” flatly and don’t show any overwhelming sense of gratitude or excitement and return to their room.

You are left standing there wondering what the heck just happened. Didn’t you just give them a brand-new car? Where is the big hug, the tears of joy, the “Hey, let’s all go for a ride!” You expected so much more than what you got. Right away you go to thoughts of how ungrateful they are, how spoiled and entitled they have become, and how they take you for granted. You wonder what is wrong with them.

Don’t despair. This “problem” is an opportunity. You can use it to shape a new relationship with your child — one where you understand each other and feel appreciated.

In what situations do you notice a lack of gratitude or where do you notice you are not getting the appreciation you desire? Your frustration will continue to grow if you continue to expect gratitude to naturally occur. It’s easy to slip into nobody-appreciates-me mode, become reactive and blame your child for not being grateful.

Rather than chasing after them with your hair on fire and launching into a lecture, try a new way that can build connection and understanding.

Here’s how:

Step 1: SLOW DOWN or STOP

Resist the temptation to make this a teachable moment. If you are feeling frustrated, resentful or angry, now is NOT the time to have a meaningful discussion. Wait until you are calm. Otherwise, your automatic reactions could ruin the chance for having a safe and connected conversation.

Step 2: SHIFT INTO NEUTRAL

Recognize that you are experiencing the world through your own lens. Your child does not see what you see and vice versa. They are living in the world of their thoughts and feelings; you are living in yours. Move beyond assigning right and wrong in the situation. Your viewpoints are different.

The Thought Feeling Connection

Your thoughts create your feelings. In this example, you are both looking at a neutral thing…the car.  Yet you each have a completely different experience of the car. You think differently about the car therefore you feel differently about the car. Your child hasn’t caused your upset, your thinking has. Nobody can MAKE you feel anything. Separate the facts of what happened from your thoughts about it. When you know where your feelings are coming from it is easier to stay in a neutral perspective.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Focus on the facts, which are: 1) you purchased a car for your child; 2) you gave them the keys; and 3) you witnessed a reaction different from what you hoped for. Period. Everything else you tag on about how they don’t appreciate you is your judgement. The facts are neutral.  Your thoughts are not.

Your brain and judgement

It is easy to become critical when your child isn’t doing what you think they should. If you want to open a dialog, criticizing won’t work. Here’s why: Criticism is processed as threat in the brain’s Amygdala, the area of the brain that reacts with fight, flight or freeze. The goal here is to communicate in a way that doesn’t invite defensiveness or disengagement. Don’t trigger the Amygdala.

Step 3: PROCEED WITH CURIOUSITY

Curiosity connects.

Your curiosity will connect you with your child far more than disapproval ever will. Prioritize connecting. Seek to relate with your child rather than convincing them how they should react. If you are not intentional about this conversation, you might slip into talking at them, telling them how they should have acted, and listing all the reasons they should appreciate you. That just doesn’t work. Have you ever suddenly become grateful for something simply because someone told you to?

Start by sharing what you noticed and getting curious about their perspective. Using the new car example, you might say, “When you saw the car, I noticed that you didn’t jump up and down and say thank you. I admit because of how thrilled I was with my first car, that is what I expected to see. Help me understand what getting this car means to you.” And then zip it.

You may be surprised by what you hear: “Actually, I am terrified about wrecking a new car and I am super anxious about driving at all.”  Or “It wasn’t the model I wanted.  I was hoping to have a say in my first car”.  All responses are an opportunity for more understanding. There is way more going on in your child than what you see.

 Step 4: YIELD TO LISTEN

Remember, you are curious about their thoughts here, not trying to convince them of yours. Your job is to ask questions and deeply listen.  Make sure you understand how they see it.  Ask “What” and “How” questions that invite them to share their viewpoint.  “Why” questions tend to invite defensiveness.

 Step 5: ARRIVE AT AGREEMENT

Agreements are better than expectations in healthy relationships. Gratitude can be an expectation in parent child relationships, because parenting involves a great deal of giving. We want to know we are appreciated for it. The problem with expectation is that it is one-sided and there is a huge assumption they are shared.  We get upset when our expectations are not met. So, why not invite the other person to look at both of your expectations together and find something you can agree on? Agreements are discussed, known and shared mutually.

A dialogue about gratitude and appreciation will help you arrive at a new agreement. Be willing to share what gratitude and appreciation means to you. Find out what it means to your children. Let your child know the currency that gratitude has for you — how good you feel to be thanked for gifts. Together, you can build an understanding about how you want to be with each other around gifts and giving. What does gratitude look like and how will you demonstrate it? Make requests, be willing to compromise and confirm agreement.

Doing all of the above is not a guaranteed formula for getting your kids to appreciate you, but it is a great place to start. You cannot demand gratitude. However, you can foster a relationship where it is more likely to be expressed and shared.

stephanie hardwick

Stephanie Hardwick

Stephanie has counseled and coached families, individuals, and leaders with wealth since 2007. She has a deep passion for helping clients navigate the unique challenges that having high net worth can bring.

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