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My eight year old and I have had a tough go of it recently. We left our summer vacation visiting family in Oregon, missing just about everything. From sweet cousins, to pine trees and redwoods and rivers, coming home to Arizona was a huge shock to our system and left us all feeling uneasy and unsettled.
We spring boarded from that, right into back to school. My daughter wasn’t put into a class with her friend, she has a new teacher with loads of homework. She was distraught. And my usually outgoing and curious girl was shrinking back.
I am always stressed with back to school. My Dad died labor day weekend when I was 6, just days before school started, and it left a sort of lasting back to school trauma. As an adult I get more anxious than usual. Combine that with my son starting kindergarten and the general mommy feels of this time of year and life is really just a giant lightening rod of anxiety.
This was most evident in my daughter tantrums. Every day she came home from school in complete meltdown mode. She held it together long enough to step over that safe threshold of home, and went nuclear.
And so did mommy.
And its been hard.
So many tears. I know how it feels, to wear that brave smiley face all day, just to come home emotionally drained, exhausted, longing, and collapsing into myself.
Especially because I’m there too.
Its been a struggle in the morning to just get up and get going. To face anything, let alone the piles of dishes in my kitchen and loads of laundry in my hall and my husbands crazy night work schedule (nightshift workers unit!)
So after weeks of tears I decided we needed something. We needed a tool. We needed some help emotionally regulating, because we were really struggling.
And that’s when it really hit me. We were missing gratefulness.
Not blind optimism, but just a little gratitude. We didn’t need our problems to disappear, but we needed to gain some perspective in how to handle them.
We were stuck in black and white. We needed to add some shading into our lives.
So one particularly rough night, when my daughter and I were kept up by her asthma and rounds of breathing treatments (because back to school colds are a whole other thing!) I did what any good Mama does. I googled.
I googled gratitude, and emotional intelligence, and I found some great studies. Reproducible, scientifically rigorous, studies about the small act of gratitude journaling and well being. It can actually change your brain. Rewire it. Uproot deep neural pathways and thought patterns.
Which I love, because it also happens to coincide with what God says on the subject:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High.
Gratitude works to protect our hearts, and acts as a sacrifice to God. It can inoculate us against losing hope. It can give us perspective.
And I love that the Bible calls it a sacrifice. Because it can feel that way.
Sometimes I want to hold on to my grumpy mood. I feel entitled to being cranky.
My day was hard! I’m entitled to feel this way!
So I snap at my husband about the dishes.
My daughter got teased at school, she is allowed to feel upset.
But she comes homes and yells at her brother and sister
Our feelings are valid, but they don’t give us a right to be angry or short all the time with those around us.
Its also not healthy to ruminate over them. They become bigger the more we think about them. We start to lose whats good, as what’s bad takes over.
This sort of thinking is so unhealthy. And our attitudes as mothers really do set the tone for our homes.
I wanted to teach my daughter what to do with her feelings.
I wanted help with what to do with my own feelings.
So together we went to the bookstore and grabbed some pretty journals. I also grabbed an awesome American Girl Journal about feelings for my daughter so we could work through this together.
As a Mama, I don’t have to have all the answers, but I can make sure, when I don’t know, we grow and learn together.
Because I’ve learned sometimes, if we don’t have names for what we are feeling, it just comes out angry, when really it’s scared, embarrassed, nervous, frustrated, hurt, lonely, jealous, forgotten, guilty, rejected, or regretful.
I wanted my daughter to be able to acknowledge how she felt, but also be able to lay it down as a sacrifice to God, who promises to take our burdens.
And a gratitude journal has been a powerful way to do that.
It was hard the first day. We wrote down silly things like jelly beans, our two dogs, our bunny. We also wrote three things we felt that day.
But after a few days, it started to come easier, and all day long we are now on the look out for things that made us feel thankful so we can share them with each other.
We just make bullet lists and little doodles, but there are so many great ways to keep one.
It started out as a list of tangible things because that’s all we could think of, but it’s quickly evolved to including other people, feelings and situations too.
I was thankful when my brother brought me a cup of water.
I was thankful when you forgave me for yelling.
I was thankful when my husband decided not to play with his friends online, but instead played locally with just me.
I was thankful when we all sat down and colored together.
Even my kindergartner has decided to join in. He is still learning his letters, and brings an alphabet sheet over and has us help him point and spell his letters.
I’m thankful he sits with us.
He is thankful for sight words and his teacher, and the whole world. He is thankful for Mommy.
The most profound change has been the amount of calm that has flooded our house. Even when big feelings come, and they do with an 8, 6, and 4 year old, we are able to meet and greet them, and let them go.
Even my daughter noticed this week, how she has been doing better with her feelings. She felt so proud. She went a week without a tantrum, and was able to meet disappointments better. She had a vocabulary now, and thankfulness to fall back on.
Gratitude is teaching us how to let go and lay down. A tangible act of obediently laying aside all the bad, and choosing to refocus on the good. Because life is often hard enough, without listing the angry and sad lists in our heads over and over. A gratitude journal brings some balance into our worry, it stop us from spinning, and breaks the negative thought cycle.
There is no wrong way to do it, grab a book with prompts, grab a pretty notebook, grab a scrap piece of paper, or even the back of an overdue bill because I have plenty of those lying around, and list some things you are thankful for, some people you are thankful for, and you will change your brain for the better in the process.
Want a few journal ideas? Here are some of mine and my kiddos favorites!