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Get Your Teen Interested in Thanksgiving Again, Despite COVID

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
Meet The Team >

The winter holidays are upon us – but this year the holidays are going to be different than any year in recent memory.

In the U.S., the six-week period between mid-November and New Year’s Day – in a typical holiday season – is the most publicly festive time of the year. These holidays take over normal life. Almost everyone gets involved in some way or another. Cities and towns across the country decorate their Main Streets and shopping districts to draw people out, celebrate their civic pride, foster a sense of community – and of course, to give businesses a boost.

If you’re like most people, the first place you notice these holidays is in the grocery store. That’s true even in 2020. Not five minutes after the Halloween candy went on clearance (and you thought about buying some and saving it for next year but quickly realized you’d eat it all way before then) you start seeing Christmas decorations pop up.

Candy canes, Santa hats, and cute reindeer vie for space with heavenly angels, elves, and Frosty the Snowman.

And if you’re like most people, your first thought is this:

What about Thanksgiving?

Then you get to the produce section, notice the gourd display and the bountiful cornucopia, and think:

Okay. They didn’t forget.

You also admit to yourself that until someone writes a few dozen catchy Thanksgiving carols and give the holiday a style makeover, Christmas will always jump the line.

But you really can’t, because you have Thanksgiving to think about.

We’re here to help you with that – especially if you have a teenager in the house for whom Thanksgiving may have lost some of its luster. And this year – because of the coronavirus pandemic – you may need some ideas about how you can get them excited and engaged, despite the fact that public health recommendations for Thanksgiving mean we shouldn’t celebrate the holiday in the ways in which most of us are accustomed.

Teenagers and The Holidays

Too cool for school.

Over it.

It’s all a commercial scam and you buy it hook, line, and sinker!

That may or may not be your teen what your teen thinks – and says to you – about the holidays this year.

If it’s not, then you’re lucky. You don’t need to read this post. If it is, don’t worry: it’s natural – a little skepticism about traditions is a sign of differentiation. It’s your teen learning to think for themselves and form their own, unique opinions about things they’ve never questioned before. That’s a healthy step in their lives.

Don’t be fooled though.

Even though they may rail against them – they may even rage against them, in some cases – teenagers still need holiday traditions, whether they realize it, admit it, or not. Everyone knows holiday rituals and traditions play an important role in the lives of children, and it’s true for teens as well. For many teens, the holidays are the one time of year when they see grandparents, uncles, and cousins. Contact with the extended family helps remind them of their place in the world. They’re reminded they’re part of something bigger than their family unit. Family traditions remind them they’re connected to their extended family, and the holiday traditions themselves remind them they’re connected to society-at-large.

Traditions Take on New Meaning During COVID

This year these traditions are more important than ever. Disruption and uncertainty around basic, foundational elements of life – like the disruption around health, the ability to travel, and the ability to gather in extended family groups – can cause significant emotional upheaval for anyone. That goes for your teenager, as well.

Click here to read our article on the importance of keeping your holiday traditions alive in 2020.

This year, more than any other year, your family rituals will be a source of stability and comfort for your teens. They’ll remind them that even in challenging times, there are some things that never change, like the importance of family, the importance of gratitude, and the value of taking the time to prioritize kindness, giving, and, at risk of being overly sentimental – love, compassion, empathy for our fellow humans.

That’s why it’s worth it to have a Zoom dinner with the extended family if it’s possible. You may all be in different time zones on completely different schedules – but you can work it out. If you can’t get everyone in the same place at the same virtual time, then you’re in luck: you get to have multiple Thanksgiving feasts. Have one with the aunts and uncles. Have one with the grandparents. And don’t forget to have one with the second cousins twice removed.

Don’t tell anyone we said this, but one advantage of Zoomgiving is you only have to cook for the people in your house.


With all that said, how do you get a surly, cynical, or just-plain-bored teen interested in Thanksgiving, despite COVID, despite, their teenageness, and despite everything?

Read on.

Thanksgiving: Tricks for Teens

Let’s cut straight to the chase: the majority of teens respond very well when parents do things to make them feel independent, responsible, and valued.

That’s where you start. The teen sense of self-importance – which is at times grossly over-inflated – is where you find and apply leverage. There are three main areas you can do this:

  1. At home.
  2. At (virtual) school.
  3. Out in the (virtual) world.

We’ll go through each of these three areas of their lives and offer suggestions about how to use these three elements of their lives to get them involved in Thanksgiving – all altered with COVID in mind, of course.

At Home

Planning the Day

Include them in the entire process. If you’re going to go the Zoom route, get your teen in on the logistics– the earlier the better. They should be experts by now since they’ve probably been in virtual school since March. Your tech savvy teen can help with everything from setting up the virtual meeting room, to choosing background themes – click here and here for fun ideas – to acting as the gatekeeper when event time arrives. And if you have a teen you trust with the car, they can help you run holiday-related errands, though this year, we should all run fewer errands than usual, to minimize our contact with people outside our quarantine and mitigate the spread of the virus.

Planning the Meal

This is a big one. It can be part of the planning angle, too. Get your teen in on planning the menu and cooking the meal. Since it’s unlikely your teen will be going out, visiting friends, or spending a lot of time outside the home this year, this is the perfect time to pass down all those homemade family recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Teach your teens how to do it all: bake the bird (or vegetarian equivalent), make the stuffing, make the pumpkin pie, make homemade whip cream – you name it. Of all years, this is the year when you will definitely have the time for slow, old-fashioned, from scratch home cooking. That’s right – from soup to nuts, 2020 is the year you can teach your teens everything there is to know about making a Thanksgiving meal.

Planning Activities

One thing some teens dread is the time surrounding the actual holiday, rather than the holiday itself. For Thanksgiving, this means the day before and after, when everyone is home and the holiday is in full swing, but there’s lots of free time. Your teen can find and plan day trips, fun local events (that follow COVID guidelines, of course), or a game night at home. They can also take charge of raking up huge piles of leaves and jumping into them: make it a contest. And don’t forget playing football out in the yard: you don’t have to be an athlete to have a good time with a round of two-hand touch or flag football.

At (Virtual) School

Sports: With Precautions

Yes, we know, we know: it’s vacation time, and the last thing teens want to do is participate in school-related events. That is, unless that’s what all their friends are doing, or what people they want to be friends with are doing. During COVID, some states follow modified schedules, and mandate reduced capacity in stands to allow for social distancing, temperature/symptoms screening upon entrance, and other measures as dictated by local public health officials. A typical high school football season ends the weekend before Thanksgiving, with playoffs running through December. That means you may still be able to see a game this year. If you do decide to go to a game, remember: be COVID-safe – and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Fundraising: Online This Year

Thanksgiving break is an ideal time for teens to organize fundraisers for their favorite club or cause. Teens can take the lead and engage local businesses, neighbors, or school administration in the process. It may not be car-wash weather, but that’s not a great idea during COVID anyway. This year, your teen can get online and organize fundraising drives through virtual platforms such as GoFundMe or Indiegogo. They can also get on the phone and call local businesses to include them in whatever virtual events schools host during the holidays. It’s important to keep those connections alive and maintain a community spirit – which includes the school – during a time when the default public health circumstances make it easy to disconnect from the people, places, and things around us.

Tutoring: All Set Up for Virtual Teaching and Learning

We’re not kidding. Semester finals are just around the corner. Your teen can make some extra money over the holiday, helping friends or school peers catch up on material and get in good shape for the end of the semester. During COVID, this can easily happen online – sharing screens and online resources is easy. And as we mentioned, most teenagers are experts at this by now, since they’ve been learning and interacting with educational content online since springtime. In fact, this year – with all these online resources primed and ready to go – it may be easier to organize and plan a full day or evening of tutoring, because there’s zero travel time involved, and tutors and clients alike can simply log in and get going.

Out In the (Virtual) World


In a typical year, we think volunteering in-person at a food bank or homeless shelter is the perfect way to embody the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, we recommend volunteering, but not in-person. There are plenty of ways to get involved: food drives, clothing drives, and online fundraising for children and families are great things to get involved in. Even if it all happens online or on the phone, volunteering can keep a teen busy and engaged doing something productive during their time off school. Every big city in the country has multiple options for helping those in need on Thanksgiving, and most small towns have programs that could use a hand, as well. The teen can take the lead: if you let them find where they want to volunteer and plan the entire thing themselves, the teachable moments are virtually infinite.

Making Donations

A week off school means time: time which can be used cleaning rooms, cleaning out attics and garages, and deciding what to do with everything. One way to make those tasks – which let’s admit, can be onerous – more enjoyable is to give them a purpose: instead of saying “Clean out your closet,” or “Let’s get this garage back in shape,” you can say something like “Let’s go through all old belongings and decide what we want to donate to those less fortunate than we are.” Churches and charities typically post lists of needed items online or in community newsletters, but we already know what’s on most of those lists: winter clothes and food.

If your teen is becoming a social justice activist, or simply wants to help others, this is a great way to do something that helps immediately. There are people in our country who will be cold and hungry on Thanksgiving Day, and your teen’s donation can help change that.

The Spirit of Thanksgiving

By the time we’re adults, we all know the story of thanksgiving we learned in grade school – though based on historical events – took place in the larger context of the colonial period of history. We also know that in the big picture, the ideas we attach to Thanksgiving are important not because of what did or didn’t happen close to three-hundred years ago, but because of what they can teach us today.

Teenagers, especially those who are or pretend to be jaded to the holidays, or voice cynicism about their commercialization, still need to be reminded of the lessons we learn from them: namely, that the things in life that matter most are the things that can’t be bought on Amazon, streamed on Hulu, or posted on Facebook or Instagram.

What matters most in life is the people in our lives, starting with our family and friends.

If we take the best of what Thanksgiving can offer, we start with the name implies: giving thanks for the presence of our family and friends, the fact we have a safe place to gather, and the fact we have enough food for everyone to eat. When we remind teens and ourselves of these fundamentals, we begin to teach and learn genuine gratitude, which, in the end, serves everyone well. This year – 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic – these fundamental lessons are more important than ever.

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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