Asking about School
The Myth of the Perfect College
Preparing Older Teens for the Workforce
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For parents, family holidays usually elicit
a mix of feelings. Hopefully, there's the pleasure of connecting with loved ones and
enjoying shared traditions, but often that's accompanied by apprehension about everyone
getting along, challenges of meeting everyone's various needs - emotional and otherwise
- and dealing with the logistics of coordinating everyone's schedules. This year, many
parents I work with are discussing their difficulties planning family holidays. Although
they're dealing with aging grandparents, increasingly complicated travel, and nuanced
familial dynamics, it's often teens and tweens who are triggering parents' greatest
What's the Problem?
For years, your kids may have gone along with
whatever plans you made. Then, out of nowhere, you may be faced with protests about some
family get-together or another. For example, Marcus, a high school senior, suddenly
complained bitterly about his mother hosting her large extended family. Lynn, a college
freshman, refused to attend the annual Thanksgiving dinner at her paternal grandparents'
house this fall. Their parents felt puzzled, frustrated, and even annoyed by teens who
added to their stress by digging in their heels. As one mother said to me, "Why now? It's
the very last thing I need!"
If managing who goes where for each holiday is
hard when parents are still married to each another, it is exponentially more difficult
when families are split by separation or divorce. When new couples form or remarry, there
may be as many as three or four or more different family groups to consider—elevating
holiday planning logistics, not to mention emotional complexities, to an often overwhelming
Margot is a 13-year-old seventh grader whose
parents have been divorced for eight years. Because neither her mother nor father want to
part with her on Christmas day, she always spent the day with her mother until 2 PM, and
then went to her father's house. This year, however, she said, "No more! I'm staying put."
Predictably, this prompted numerous heated discussions between her parents, who were aghast
at the idea of not spending any part of Christmas day with their only child.
Robbie, a 16-year-old high school junior, complained
it would be "too weird" to visit his mother's live-in boyfriend's family when he learned the
boyfriend's son had to be at his mother's house instead. Needless to say, Robbie's position
only worsened his mother's own confusion about how the respective families should observe this
Why the Sudden Fuss?
Although you may find your teens' and tweens'
opinions unhelpful and even troublesome, their eagerness to express them makes perfect
sense developmentally. There are good reasons why their previous, much appreciated,
easygoing attitudes may be merely fleeting memories. When they were younger, teens probably
focused on the more superficial aspects of the holidays, didn't yet have the cognitive
abilities to challenge the wisdom of your decisions, and were far less aware of family
interactions. Their emotional vulnerabilities not only bring to the forefront teens' own
needs and desires, but also make them intolerant of certain family members or dynamics that
provoke them. Think back to how you felt as a teenager. Were you happy to go along with
whatever holiday arrangements your parents made? Did you look forward to seeing all your
relatives, or did you sometimes feel uncomfortable? Were there any family members you
particularly dreaded having to see?
First Step: Understand
Despite the busyness of the holidays, it's
important to figure out what is prompting your teen's complaints. Their objective is
probably not, as you may theorize, to get on your nerves or make life more difficult
for you. If kids can articulate what's bothering them, hear them out. If not, take a
few moments to imagine what might be behind their protests. Then check out your
theories with them ("I'm wondering if maybe you're reluctant to go to so-and-so's
house for the holidays because...."). In my experience, the most common issues prompting
kids' complaints are:
Needs for Autonomy. - During the teen and tween years, so much of their
life—how much schoolwork they have, when their bodies develop, their family
constellation—feels beyond their control. At the same time, teens usually long for
independence. They want input into decisions that affect them. Expressing strong opinions
about what they want to do for the holidays—and with whom—is one way they try to gain some
Lynn, for example, returned home for her first college vacation feeling more confident of
her own feelings and ideas. Being away helped her to realize she often felt unheard by her
parents. So she was determined to make her desires known this holiday season. While her
parents were taken aback at her vehemence about not going to her grandparents, they were
able to see her protest as a declaration of her own independence and were therefore open
to compromise in a way that validated her right to have a say.
Discomfort. - Adolescents have a strong need for belonging and acceptance, not just
with their peers but also by their families. Whether the holidays are spent with extended
biological relatives or blended families, feeling out of place provokes intensely
uncomfortable feelings. Teens often want to avoid strangers or anyone with whom they don't
feel a connection.
Robbie didn't feel right about being with his mother's boyfriend's relatives, who were not
his family. More compelling, this year he worried that his mother's boyfriend's son, who
was his own age, might feel worse about missing his father if he knew Robbie would be there
without him. As it turned out, by speaking directly with his mother's boyfriend's son Robbie
was assured it would be okay—and was surprised at having a good time with his welcoming
Resentments. - With the heightened stresses and expectations of the holidays, ongoing
frustrations can come to a head, especially for teens and tweens who are still learning to
control their emotions. That's why minor changes in schedules or traditions so often trigger
what appear to be overreactions. Sometimes teens aren't even conscious of feelings, which may
have been brewing for years, which suddenly erupt!
Although her parents had been separated for years, Margot had been finding it more
difficult lately to pack up her things and move every few days between her father's and
mother's homes. To Margot, this arrangement was carved in stone. Eager to make her parents
happy, she didn't want to risk causing conflict by shaking up the status quo. But on the
holidays, Margot didn't hesitate to make a strong statement.
Self-Consciousness. - Shy, introverted, or self-conscious teens and tweens may find
it especially difficult to make conversation with relatives they see infrequently. Not
uncommonly, they feel put on the spot by relatives who ask them pointed, if not intrusive,
questions—and struggle to answer politely. It is understandable why kids are reluctant to
face such situations.
As a high school senior, Marcus is in the thick of college applications and all its accompanying
anxiety. Using his sense of humor, he told me he reviewed his mother's guest list and calculated
how many times he would be asked where he was applying and if he had applied Early Decision; it
was more than he could bear. Fortunately, Marcus's mother found numerous ways to protect him from
such "interrogation," such as by assigning him tasks that kept him busy and arranging for him to
entertain cousins away from where the adults would congregate.
Unpleasant Reminders. - With their more astute powers of observation, teens often want to
avoid painful circumstances they anticipate based on past holidays. Many speak of deep-seated
rivalries among their parents' generation, grandparents who are harshly critical of parents, or
seeing divorced parents with new partners. Some teens want to depart from tradition because they
already feel "things aren't the same;" older siblings may be grown or studying abroad, grandparents
may have passed away, and so forth. For these and other reasons, parents may suddenly hear about
strong desires to celebrate holidays in a totally unfamiliar way.
Discuss, Problem-Solve, & Compromise
Rather than ignoring holiday dilemmas, talk openly
with teens and tweens. Acknowledge kids' rights to have opinions and empathize with their
reasons, if you know them. Ask what solutions they would propose. This stimulates their
problem-solving and gives them much-desired input.
Assess if compromises are appropriate and workable.
For example, if the prospect of spending days on end "trapped" with aged relatives is making
them apprehensive, perhaps teens might be allowed to shorten their visits. They could take
side trips or short overnight stays nearby with siblings or cousins to break up the visit.
Some teens are permitted to accept invitations from family friends who are traveling or going
skiing. Others are allowed to bring friends, which can provide a welcome distraction and
buffer from family unpleasant dynamics. If plans can't be altered, empathizing and strategizing
about minimizing discomfort often go a long way.
With teens and tweens changing rapidly, every year
might bring a whole new set of holiday challenges, which call for thoughtful, flexible, and
creative planning. As hard as it might be to depart from tradition or your picture of the
"ideal" celebration, sometimes it will be necessary and sensible. Remember, the plan you make
for this holiday season is not necessarily a new precedent, but most likely a short-term
strategy. Above all, remaining attuned and open-minded—despite the hype and strong feelings
evoked by family holidays—is a gift for which teens and tweens will undoubtedly be grateful.