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Tweens and Teens

From Holiday Kids to Holiday Helpers

Helping Preteens Find a Place

November 01, 2009
"Aw, Mom. I don't want to sit with the little kids. They're so dorky!"

"Oh no, please don't make me sit with the grown-ups. They're so boring!"

The holidays that bring families together can cause young teens to stand apart. Too old to get excited about Santa and too young to enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee around the fire, they may complain to cover up feelings of displacement.

Helping preteens find a place to belong during holiday gatherings can be a challenging but not impossible task, and doing some pre-holiday brainstorming can make things easier for parents, too. Keep in mind that underneath their nagging to leave the table and get back to their rooms or to the TV, they still have a strong need for the family connection that holidays provide.

The solution to the "displacement dynamic" is finding a workable middle ground, where your preteen's growing maturity is respected yet her limits are acknowledged. Consider some of the following suggestions to keep things running smoothly, both physically and emotionally, during your holiday season festivities:

"Hire" your child as a holiday assistant. Giving her special responsibilities can help your preteen find a place to fit in. Let her know that you need her help making the meal or party run smoothly. Assign tasks that are simple enough for her to handle by herself, yet give her a sense of purpose. Then make the job more significant and fun by adding a prop or two. For instance, let her give out "coat check tickets" when she carries guests' wraps to the bedroom; or let her use a paper receipt book for taking dessert orders.

If it fits with your regular allowance philosophy, give her a chance to earn some extra money by doing the supplementary cleaning chores that are needed before company comes. Try writing out a "work order" and giving her "coffee breaks" and a "paycheck."

Spotlight special skills and talents. Letting your young teen put his talents to use will keep him busy and boost his self-esteem at the same time. If he likes to take pictures, ask him to be the official photographer, capturing your holiday with close-ups and candids, or recording the highlights with a video camera. If he is a musician, have him choose some mealtime music and selections for later on; he can act as his own DJ or enlist the help of a sibling. Kids who like to cook can make a unique hors d'oeuvre or dessert; artists can create special dining table place cards or adorn the house with their original decorations; pet-lovers can put on an after-dinner show highlighting the dog's latest tricks.

Emphasize increasing maturity. Ask your middle-years child to help with the younger children in a way that says that she's different from the "little kids." Let her know that her increasing knowledge, patience and practical skills set her apart from them. Then ask for her assistance with feeding babies, walking preschoolers to the park, or reading holiday stories.

When you approach this request as a reflection of her maturity, she receives a compliment instead of feeling put-upon. Also, defining specific or structured tasks makes them appear more important, and gets a better response than does a vague request to, "Keep an eye on the kids, will you?"

Ease the interaction between generations. Many preteens feel uncomfortable conversing with older adults. They shy away from great-grandparents or unfamiliar aunts because the seniors appear to be so different from them. Planned activities can offer a safe way to encourage interaction while opening up lines of communication and enriching relationships between older and younger family members.

For example, ask your middle-years child to act as family historian, interviewing relatives about significant events in their lives; or give her a list of questions such as, "What was your first job?" "What was the most embarrassing (or funny) thing that ever happened to you?" and have her collect answers from each person in the room. The shared experiences provide a common ground and help children relate better to the older guests. A game of charades or a board game such as "Real Stories" can also serve as an icebreaker and help kids feel more comfortable interacting with older family members.

Offer a special activity. At family gatherings, young teens can easily get bored. They're generally not mature enough to enjoy just "visiting" with relatives, yet they're too old for many of the younger children's pastimes. When making plans for your holiday gathering, include a simple, yet special, activity that appeals to your young teen. Discuss possibilities with your child ahead of time.

For example, you might agree that he will have dinner with the family at noon, but later on he can rent a movie, go out for ice cream, go to the arcade with Uncle John, or spend an allotted time online chatting with friends. Help him to decide on something that is both realistic and fun.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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