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How to Manage Thanksgiving With A Troubled Teen

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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If you have a troubled teen in the house, you’re more than aware they can throw a monkey wrench into the works. You want everyone to be happy and you want everything to run smoothly, but you’re worried sick your unruly teen might throw a tantrum during dinner, embarrass you in front of your own parents and relatives, and embody the exact opposite of gratitude and warm holiday cheer.

So how do you keep that from happening?

Tips to Keep the Peace This Thanksgiving

Like it or not, you’re in charge. Sure, your teen has to do their part. They’re required to be mature and respectful. They’re required to reciprocate the kindness and love the adults in their life extend to them. That’s a completely realistic expectation. However, if you have a troubled teen, you know their hormones are raging, they’re making poor decisions, and they’re having a hard time controlling what they say and do.

Don’t panic.

There are some steps to take to keep the peace and keep Thanksgiving Dinner from going off the rails.

Tip #1: Manage Your Own Stress

Remember when your teen was an infant, a toddler, and just starting school? When you were stressed, they channeled it. They had a knack for acting out your subtext, tuning into what was really going on inside you, and unconsciously translating that into their own behavior. Here’s a fact: that hasn’t changed. The connection is still there. If you bring stress and anxiety into a situation, they’ll sense it, and act out. To avoid that, check in with yourself, identify your own stress, and do your best not to carry it into Thanksgiving week. You set the tone and you establish the norms. You can regulate your stress and set an example they’ll follow.

Tip #2: Preview the Schedule

Talk to your teen about what’s coming up. Go over your expectations for their behavior. Communicate firm expectations and map out fair and realistic outcomes if they don’t follow the rules. Tell them exactly how the day is going to go, how much help you expect from them, who’s coming, when they need to be dressed for dinner – if your family is formal like that – and when they need to be on their best behavior.

Which brings us to the next tip.

Tip #3: Choose Your Battles

Review your plan for the holiday week and decide how much you need your teen to participate. They’ll want to spend unstructured time with friends over Thanksgiving Break, and they’ll probably also want to spend some time alone in their room, doing whatever it is teenagers do in their room when the door is closed. Give them as much of that time as possible, and know that the more they get what they want, the more they’ll give you what you want – which is them, being the awesome kid you know is still in there.

Tip #4: Learn From the Past

If you’re hosting a big family dinner at your house or planning to attend family events at a relative’s house, you have an added responsibility: you’re the mediator where your teen is concerned. The best kind of mediator is proactive. You know if you have a relative who rubs your kid the wrong way and vice-versa. Be ready for it. You know the history. Don’t allow it to repeat itself. Some relatives have poor boundaries and will say provocative things to stir the pot. There are two ways to prevent this kind of scene before it happens. First, keep your superhero mom or dad senses alive to the mood of the room and the conversation. When your sense things are about to go sideways, redirect the conversation before it goes into the danger zone. Second, talk to your teen about the relative in question beforehand. Be open and honest about it. If they don’t know how to deal, give them pointers. You most likely have experience dealing with this person, and your advice can help.

Tip #5: Don’t Overextend

When you make a schedule for Thanksgiving week, make sure it’s realistic. Especially with a troubled teenager involved. This tip circles back to Tip #1: Check Yourself. If you create a schedule where you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, then revise it, or everyone will sense your anxiety. Cancel the unnecessary things. Some days will be busy, but they don’t have to be hectic. The goal is to bring the family together, so make sure you don’t plan so many activities that you sabotage yourself. More is not necessarily better. Think quality over quantity.

Thanksgiving Can Be Hard

Finally, recognize that the holidays can do a number on anyone. Divorces, relatives no longer with us, bittersweet memories, and a host of other factors can make Thanksgiving emotionally charged. It’s important to remember your kids can develop baggage you know nothing about. If they act out, understand there’s probably a reason behind it. Talk to them to find out what’s going on. And if, during these conversations, you discover underlying issues – depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance use – then the holidays are a perfect time to get real. In a loving and supportive environment, you can face the problems head on, make plans to address them, and head into the rest of the holiday season with a clean slate.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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