How To Survive The Holidays With Teens


Posted in: Teenagers

Topics: Relationships

The holiday season is a time that’s supposed to be fun and memorable, but when you have a moody teen in the family, you may find it more memorable than fun—and perhaps not in a good way. Even the best of teens can be less than enthusiastic about spending extended amounts of time with the family. The daughter who once loved going to The Nutcracker every year may at age 15 tell you that she’s no longer interested in going. And, no amount of bribes may get your teenage son to the annual family cooking swap. So, what is a parent to do? Do you give away the ballet tickets to someone who will appreciate the performance? My answer to questions like this is a resounding…“probably.” Giving adolescents room to be adolescents is important, especially around the holidays. The process of becoming an adult is one in which children separate from their parents. It’s a painful process for both teens and their parents. And, when teens assert their individuality during the holidays, it can be particularly sad for the parents. Why is this so hard? Well, there are a few reasons.

Let’s start with the parents: holidays make parents acutely aware of the passage of time. It’s a time to reflect, and part of that reflection may include reminiscences of how wonderful holidays were when their children were so fun to be around—perhaps a time that seems simpler in retrospect. Parents may want to recapture that time. Teens, on the other hand, are all about the future. They have little interest in being the children they were in holidays past…and that’s okay. In fact, it’s the way it’s supposed to be.

In addition, the holidays are a stressful time for most adults. We can be overwhelmed by the number of social engagements, gift buying (both the financial and shopping obligations) and normal work and home expectations. Our kids’ behavior may seem even more trying at these times because it’s magnified by our own stress, emotional fatigue, and, perhaps, lack of availability due to increased obligations.

So—what’s the parent of a teen to do? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Decide what’s important to your family. Do you remember when your kids were younger, and you had to “choose your battles?” Well, the same holds true now. Figure out what’s okay for your child to forego, and what’s not. Teens typically want to “hang” with other teens—even during the holidays, even during Covid. If you have out-of-town visitors and are feeling the strain, chances are your teen probably is too; an afternoon at a friend’s house or chatting with a friend (without Grandma and Grandpa) might make a world of difference in his or her attitude. Similarly, if you won’t be able to have family visitors this year like you usually do, your teen might be feeling that impact as well. Don’t take offense if they want to spend time with a friend — it might be their way of helping to fill the void of what they’re missing.

Get your teen involved in thinking about others. If your child doesn’t want to attend the local community “Pops” concert or some other “boring” event, replace it with going to a homeless shelter, or helping out someone less fortunate. Teens can be very self-motivated, but at the same time very altruistic. Replacing the annual “make-our-family’s-latkes-recipe” activity with something that is helpful to others may make the holiday more meaningful for everyone.

Don’t let your teen’s moodiness ruin it for everyone else. Just because this is the year that your teen decides to question the accuracy of The Christmas Story, doesn’t mean this issue needs to be resolved on Christmas Eve. Teens sometimes pick a holiday to announce that they “don’t believe in God,” or that “religion is a social construct that has led to war throughout the ages.” Let it go. If we had to be judged on the views we had at 16, we’d all be embarrassed.

And, just to repeat for my own benefit, let it go. Do what you can, buy what you can afford, and enjoy the rest of the ride. Teens eventually become adults, and what seems so important now will be chuckled at (or not even remembered) at some later date.

Finally, keep your expectations low. Holidays are a mix of joy and sadness. It’s a time to celebrate, but also a time to remember people we’ve lost, and regrets we have. When the holidays come around, we’re typically prepared to have fun, but not always prepared for the wistfulness and sadness that may accompany the holiday. Be prepared for both—in fact, try to embrace both.

And, if all else fails, try to, in the words of my 21-year-old son, just chill. Easier said than done, but not a bad thing for us to strive toward during this chilly and festive time of year.

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Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at  Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director for the MGH Clay Cente...

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