Today’s great advice is contributed by Kelley Bolton, Psy.D. at Southeast Psych. Dr. Bolton runs a SuperGirls! social group beginning in February and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For as long as I can remember, my dad’s family has gathered on Christmas Eve to celebrate together during the holidays. Dinner is always potluck style with a few constants like mom’s carrot cake or my grandmother’s shrimp cocktail. We can always count on my aunts’ to keep us in stitches as they reminisce and share stories from the past year. And sometime after dinner, someone always takes the children on a drive around the neighborhood “looking for Santa.” When they return, the children discover that Santa stopped by our house while they were away. Santa’s gifts are never wrapped, and they can always be found arranged in a glorious display in front of the tree!
As a child, “looking for Santa” was one of my favorite traditions! My heart would begin to beat faster and harder as my cousins and I put on our coats to prepare for the ride. The longer we were gone, my attention would drift further and further away from the goal of finding Santa to thinking about the wonderful presents that I would discover under the tree at home. For years this tradition produced feelings of excitement and anticipation! Around age 10 or 11, however, it began to evoke something new. I felt dread, embarrassment, and even a bit of anger because I was still expected to participate. I didn’t want to go “looking for Santa.” Pretending to look for Santa was for kids who didn’t know any better. I was on to my family’s ruse. I certainly didn’t feel like a kid anymore, and what did I have to anticipate? I didn’t play with toys (electronics weren’t such a big deal back then), and clothes, cassette tapes, and gift cards just didn’t have the same visual impact as a Cabbage Patch doll and roller skates! I was a tween.
As a psychologist, I work with parents everyday who express a desire to help their tweens grow and develop in a healthy way. In other words… they want their kids to thrive. Parenting through the tween years, however, can often focus more on surviving rather than thriving. The experience of parenting a tween is frequently likened to being on a roller coaster; the numerous physical, emotional, and cognitive changes they experience can produce tremendous confusion and angst for both tweens and their parents. Add the hustle and bustle of the holidays into the mix and you may feel like that roller coaster is one loop away from coming off the tracks!
So, how can you help your tween thrive through the holidays? Here are a few ideas:
- The holidays are filled with traditions, and many of those traditions tend to be quite child-centered. “Looking for Santa” was fun as a child and my reaction to Santa’s visit certainly made the adults in my family feel good, but it was not enjoyable as a tween. Reflect on your family’s traditions and talk with your son or daughter beforehand about their thoughts or feelings about participating. If it is a child-centered tradition, letting them know that participation is optional gives your tween more personal freedom to do what feels most natural to them in the moment. This could also be an opportunity for you and your tween to come up with a new role for them in the tradition.
- Start new traditions. You might support a charity of your son or daughter’s choosing; begin a holiday shopping day with brunch with your daughter; or plan for a movie or video game marathon night.
- Turn some of your holiday activities or responsibilities into a rite of passage for your
tween. Consider passing on some of the responsibility of wrapping presents to your son or daughter (just be sure to praise the effort even if the wrapping isn’t perfect!). If you drink the milk and eat the cookies to make it look like Santa was there, consider passing this job along to your tween if he or she has younger siblings. Let this be the year your tween learns a special holiday recipe.
- Peers and social connections are very important to tweens, but can be limited because of school breaks, travel, and other holiday obligations. Consider giving them a little extra phone or computer time than they would normally have during a school week in order to stay connected; plan a sleepover; or let them invite a friend to come along while you do some last minute shopping.
- As the holidays wind down and your tween prepares to go back to school, spend some time talking about the holidays. Engage them in conversations about such things as: the best things about the holiday this year; anything they would have changed?; is there anything they can’t wait to tell their friends about?; are they looking forward to going back to school? Why or why not?
I certainly hope that the ideas and personal reflections I have shared will be useful as you help your tween thrive through the holidays, but as I conclude I would also like to leave you with one other thought. The part I love most about roller coasters is not the ride itself, but talking about the experience of the ride after it is all over! The tween years can be a confusing, awkward, and challenging time in your child’s life, but these years can also be thrilling and rich with possibility. Hold on tight and stay on that roller coaster with them. You’ll have an incredible experience to share when it’s over. Happy Holidays!