Teens and the Holidays: Keeping It Special

As the parent of two teens, I’m finding it challenging to make the holidays special.

I realized this when we were packed into the car a few weeks ago, ready to go to an annual holiday Christmas Lights event.

“We don’t want to go look at the lights, mom!” came a desperate appeal from my twelve- year-old.

We did go–probably the hot chocolate was the greatest appeal. But it was nothing like past years where the boys couldn’t wait to head out after dark all bundled up, eager to see Santa and the [now stupid] lights.

That was the moment I knew: we have outgrown many of our holiday traditions. It is time to take an inventory and be more intentional.

If you are a family with teenagers, you might also be wondering what comes after the magic of Santa has worn off.

Here are six ideas for families with teens for keeping it special during the holiday season:

1. Involve Them

Talk with your teen and together, decide what is important. Just because you always do something, it doesn’t mean it needs to continue. Does this mean giving away the tickets to the light show? Probably. But if it’s your favorite holiday tradition, figure out a way for it to continue and ask your teen to come, even if it’s not their favorite. A lot of time, if our kids know what to expect they do better, especially when the activity involves family participation, as opposed to time with friends. And be ready to make adjustments after hearing their priorities for their holiday break. I was surprised to hear from my boys that they prioritize our tradition of opening presents on Christmas morning at home over any other plan.

2. Find Ways To Give Back

Nothing beats volunteering with your teen. Trust me. There is something about working together to help others that is super fulfilling.

We ‘adopted’ a family of six kids once through a school Secret Santa program and I’ll never forget how eager my boys were to help wrap the gifts.

My oldest son and I have helped at our local soup kitchen. I loved seeing him carry boxes of prepared meals out to people’s cars.

This is something I’ve only pulled off a couple times with my boys during the holidays. I find it easy to get super busy with the regular stuff–buying presents for distant family members, getting a tree–and then I let the moment pass us by.

But that’s the amazing part about how our family traditions can transform as our kids grow up: letting go of activities that are no longer fulfilling leaves more space for activities that do fill us up.

3. Keep Some Of the ‘Little Kid’ Traditions

Just because they say going to look at the lights is stupid doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from the annual family outing. Or even depend on it. You might be surprised by how many of the little traditions your teen truly appreciates.

Here’s an example: in our family our boys have always written ‘Santa Notes’ – sweet little notes that list all the ways they helped out all year and end with their Wish List. We mail these to the North Pole and then Santa writes them back. I was ready to stop this tradition when one of my sons got genuinely disappointed. And so, long after we all agree Santa is not real (shush!) we continue the tradition of writing Santa Notes. It turns out to be a great way to engage in self reflection about how our year has gone and notice all the ways we’ve grown.

4. Include Friends

Nothing helps a moody teen who is growing tired of family time than including friends. It seems intuitive but sometimes I forget that if a friend is invited to come along, suddenly going to look at holiday lights sounds super fun. At this stage of development, teens are forming their identity outside of their family and time with friends is so important. Rather than fighting it, find ways to meet this need, particularly during the two weeks when teens are away from school and have less structure. And for teens who are managing anxiety and depression, intentional time that includes their peer group is super helpful. For more on this, check out my post about building positive mental health with your teen.

5. Teach Meaningful Gift Giving

Gone are the days of last minute runs to the big box store for the newest toy and then watching your kid’s face light up. Gift giving becomes both more (and less) complicated as our kids mature. If you can, engage them in the process of figuring out what they need or want. A simple gift of cash builds their independence and ability to choose for themselves.

Teens are often motivated to buy gifts for other people for the first time and will benefit from help with this. Maybe you can support them with a major cookie baking day and they give giant cookies to all their friends, as opposed to feeling like they have to buy something for everyone.

If you have a bigger family then drawing names and having your teen focus on just one person can help them feel less overwhelmed. It also helps them really think about getting and giving meaningful gifts.

Homemade gifts are also a wonderful way to make gift giving more meaningful as our kids get older. It could be as simple as dropping cookies off at your neighbor’s house or making Yule wreaths for friends to usher in the Solstice.

6. Revisit Cell Phone Rules

During the holiday break it’s okay to throw structure out the window for a bit. As my boys say, your teen may just need some ‘chill time.’ Nothing is better than sleeping in and wearing pajamas until noon.

But with this down time comes a greater need for responsible phone use. Because the last thing that will help our teens rejuvenate is spending hours on their phone. If sleep is being interrupted or they are on their phone in the middle of family social events, then it’s probably a good time to have a conversation about phone use.

Perhaps you reset expectations around turning it off at a certain time at night and leaving it out of their bedroom. Talk about how to engage with younger cousins and extended family, without the phone as a barrier between them. And remind them of the potential negative impacts of being on social media and believing everyone else is having a better time than them.

Embrace the Change

And finally, embrace the change if you can. It’s sad while also liberating, to notice our kids growing out of some of our holiday traditions. Now we can spend less time making it all perfect and more time just chilling together. If you are like me and sometimes find that you are ‘catching up’ with your kid’s new developmental needs, just go with it and embrace the change.

If you know that your tween or teen is struggling with stress and worry and you aren’t sure how to help, Tween or Teen Therapy will help you find practical tools and strategies right away. I would be honored to help you and your tween or teen find a sense of calm and joy again.

To find the help you and your tween or teen deserve, follow these steps:

Contact Della Pope
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