Dr. Wes: Several parents have asked us to write something on how to handle teenagers who don't want much to do with family over the holidays. With Christmas break fast approaching, we'll discuss this topic in today's column. Hopefully we can increase the holiday cheer and avoid hurt feelings for everyone.
First, my advice to parents: With 43 Christmases under my belt, I've come to believe that we over-complicate the holidays. Our society already is too complex and stressful, and we've found a way to take a nice, pleasant, calm time of the year and turn it into a frenetic struggle to meet everyone's inflated expectations. I'm not trying to be the Grinch here - quite the opposite. The more we can de-escalate the holiday anxiety, the more we can enjoy what Christmas was meant to be.
As we've discussed, teens are no less stressed than adults, and the holidays have a long history for high school and college kids of being a time to kick back, relax and try to prepare for the next semester. For this reason, teens may, in their normal egocentric way, want to make the holidays more about themselves and their friends and less about families. For the most part, I think parents should see this as part of the normal progression toward adulthood that occurs in all other aspects of teen life. They should be supportive of their kid's time off and ask only as much from them as the teen will allow.
Now my advice for teenagers: The holidays are a good time for teens to give some consideration to how others feel. They needn't build their entire break around the family, but they should remember that at no other time during the year are parents more aware of the loss they feel as their teens are growing up and becoming more distant from them. For most of us, the holidays always have been about family time, presents under the tree, the patter of little feet, baking cookies, and so on. Now the much larger feet are pattering out the door to hang out and eat baked goods at Java Break.
Teens need to be a bit forgiving of parents who feel sad (and maybe angry) over this state of affairs, and consider setting aside some time for the old holiday traditions. Not only is this a nice gesture and sign of maturity, but someday, as adults, these events will be an even more important memory of adolescence than most of the things you think are significant now. Today's boyfriend or girlfriend will be gone one day, and the time spent with them less memorable than it seems today. Family members will be dealing with one another for years to come, and their recollections of time together will stick.
Before I completely crash into the abyss of holiday sentimentality, I must say that these suggestions for teens are merely good advice. They are not rules or contracts parents should have kids sign under the heading "Give First Thy Love to Thy Family at This Holiday Season." Parents should encourage participation and forgive non-participation. Another handy suggestion is to invite boyfriends and girlfriends to spend time with the family during the holiday. This is not only a great way to keep teens involved at home, but good practice for holidays to come, when young adults will be coming home and eventually marrying into your family. I am always impressed with families who welcome friends and give them a place at the dinner table. It's even nice to wrap a gift or two for them. Your teen (and her friends) will love you for your thoughtfulness, and they may even respond in kind.
Marissa: Growing up, on Christmas morning the air was filled with excitement. After a night of straining my ears to hear sleigh bells, I would wake up before anyone else and take an early peek at our tree. Surrounded in an avalanche of brightly colored boxes, the tree stood as a monument to the spirit of Christmas, and I would wait anxiously for my parents and siblings to awake so that the flurry of present-opening could begin.
Though I still wake up before 6 a.m. to see the presents under the tree, as I have grown and changed, so has Christmas. It is that way for every teenager, and for parents to expect that their child will always want to spend every Christmas or other holiday with their family is unrealistic.
Everyone has relationships and friendships. As your teen matures, those relationships temporarily supersede the family relationship. Before I go much further, I have to say that I agree with Wes that it is not OK for your teen to abandon the family entirely. I still join my family to decorate the tree and lick the bowl after hours of baking. Compromise needs to be achieved between friend time and family time. Both are important.
The main thing is to balance the amount of time spent with the family and the time spent elsewhere. One of the things I enjoy most is seeing how other families celebrate the holidays. It is an experience that your teen should have, and by allowing him or her to share the holidays with friends, you allow more opportunity to do so.
Holidays do not need to be entirely about family. Just as your teen should be allowed to go to other homes during the festivities, so should you invite your teen's friends into your home. As Wes noted, even making it so that the guest feels like a welcome member of the family is extremely beneficial. I look back with fondness on one Christmas Eve when a friend of mine joined my family for dinner and had a gift to open along with everyone else. She also greatly appreciated it.
One day your teen will probably feel the desire to spend most of his or her holidays with just family again. However, until that time comes, you must understand that is perfectly acceptable for your teen to want to spend some of their time outside the home. By giving your teen the room to be with other people, you will be making space for a less stressful holiday.
Next week: A teenager asks how to get motivated in a class taught by a teacher s/he doesn't like.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.