When Linda’s three children, now 21, 19 and 16, were younger, there was always a big production on Christmas Eve about setting out the milk and cookies for Santa. These days, Linda says there’s a lot of joking about leaving out a shot of Baileys and a cigar. “They never have, though, despite me telling them that I think “’Santa’ would love it!”
When it comes to preserving holiday traditions with your teens, it can be a fine balance between keeping them engaged and sending them running for the hills. “Family rituals and traditions tend to go dormant on the priority list for teens,” says Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behaviour specialist. “They may not be up for a marathon visit with distant relatives, but I can guarantee that if you always put out cookies and milk and suddenly decide to ditch the tradition, they’ll be sure to call you on it.”
Many parents of teens find that keeping everyone happy during the holidays can be a daunting task. “When teens start resisting certain aspects of the holidays, there can be conflict and real sadness for parents who are mourning the loss of their children being little,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based parenting expert. “But parents need to appreciate that this is a transient time. It’s more like a hiccup.”
In the meantime, making it through the holidays with minimal sulking and door slamming will require some upfront planning. “Sit everyone down and reflect on what makes the holidays great for you and ask everyone else what would have to happen to make them great for them,” says Schafer. “You might even learn that rituals you thought were never important to your kids actually are.”
Changing the nature of the game is another way to ensure that teens remain involved in holiday celebrations. For instance, if you celebrate Hanukkah, says Braun, assign a different family member to come up with a special dessert for each of the eight nights. “This gets them engaged in a different way,” she says. “Kids, especially teens, will often remember experiences more than gifts.”
While Linda misses the days when the whole family would pile into the car to search out the prettiest Christmas lights in the neighbourhood, Braun suggests that teens might be more compelled if it was seeking out, say, the gaudiest displays. “You need to adapt to their level and have a little fun with it,” she says.
Here’s how to ensure that everyone wins when dealing with typical holiday power struggles:
Challenge #1: Looking presentable for the annual family photo
Solution: Talk to the photographer beforehand about ways to make the photo more creative. “It’s often the silly backdrops and matching cardigans that teens rebel against,” says Schafer. In the end, though, it might be a battle that you lose. “Johnny might not be in the picture for three years, but when he’s 30, he’ll look back and realize what a pain in the butt he was. I can assure you.”
Challenge #2: Going to family functions and being agreeable
Solution: Acknowledge that it might not be their cup of tea. “Let them know you understand they’d rather be with their friends but that spending time with family is important to you. Then agree on an exit plan: If they make an appearance until 9 p.m., then you’ll drive them to the movies,” says Schafer.
Challenge #3: Attending significant religious services
Solution: Take a strong stance on this one. “I think this is one place parents can step it up a bit more if religion is important to them,” says Braun. You’ll be surprised that even though teens aren’t excited about it, this is one of the areas they expect you to be firm about rather than compromise on, she adds.
Challenge #4: Entertaining younger relatives
Solution: Let them feel like heroes. “Rather than making them feel like they’re forced babysitters, let them know that they’re terrific mentors to the younger kids who look up to them,” recommends Schafer. A small token afterwards also demonstrates your appreciation and reinforces the behaviour, she says.