The Christmas and New Year’s holiday season is supposed to be a time of great connection, celebration and fun with your family, including your teens. Unfortunately, adolescents are vulnerable to struggles during this period as well. A parent who is on top of things will make sure to look for, and take action on, these issues.
You can do a great deal to help your teen navigate the holidays next year or any year:
Don’t let them overdo out-of-home time.
For many adolescents, the holidays can become a nonstop party in which they spend 98 percent of their time with friends, leaving only 2 percent to grab some food and allowance money at home. While teens may be appropriately in the “deparenting” years of development, they are still living at home and need the connection and support of family during the holidays. Otherwise, they might lose their emotional balance as their friends’ influence takes on outsized value. Set out some basic requirements and a calendar for when they need to be home with the family. A good rule of thumb is to keep the same amount of “home time” that they have when they are in school during the week, including meals, chores, family connection time, etc.
Don’t let sadness go undetected.
Holidays are a double-edged sword. They can be a reminder of love and good times, but they also can set us up to expect and hope for an ideal and perfect season, if there is such a thing. Also, something might trigger your teen’s emotions during this time: a divorce in the family, sibling struggle or maybe a medical issue. Sometimes these are called anniversary losses, and they have a powerful impact on teens.
As adolescents don’t possess the neurological maturity to metabolize losses, they don’t have the skills to deal with the feelings of disappointment and grief. So they are prone to withdrawal, depression or acting out impulsively. Parents can deal with this by avoiding the “talk happy at all costs” stance and talking with their teen frankly and openly about the disappointments that may have occurred. This will give them a chance to express their sad or angry feelings to people who can listen and contain them. They are much less likely to be overwhelmed and act on the feelings if they feel heard and understood.
Recognize family stress.
Often, a family will have current stresses going on as well as events in the past. Your teen may be facing friendship conflict, bad grades, a substance issue or tension with other family members. This can also cause your teen to withdraw or act out.
The solution for this varies depending on if the issue is a crisis or not. If it’s a true 911 (drug crisis, intense divorce situation, financial crisis, etc.), you must nip it in the bud during the holidays and tell your teen what’s going on, why it’s going on, and what you are doing to deal with it. In other words, you need to get the elephant out from under the rug, as your teen probably already knows a lot more than you realize.
If it’s a problem that doesn’t require immediate solutions (an alcoholic uncle coming to the party or a conflict between the teen and a sibling), resist the temptation to solve it all during a great dinner or gift-giving time. No one solves problems well during a time of celebration. Talk about it offline, making sure your teen has her say about it, and let her know that you’ll put energy into dealing with it when the holidays are over and things have calmed down.
Plan a service activity.
Finally, do whatever you can to get your family and teen doing some kind of service: wrapping gifts for the military, helping feed the homeless, visiting shut-ins, and much more. Like all of us, teens need the habit of helping others to get out of the situational “me first” temptations of the season. We give as we have received.
Best to you and your family this holiday!
Dr. John Townsend