If you’re wondering what to do with your teenager over the winter holidays, you’re not alone. It’s not an easy thing to figure out. Time off school means down time. And down time can mean trouble. Even for teens who have no history of behavioral issues, the temptation to explore and experiment is powerful. It’s also natural: the drive to seek new experiences and form their own personality outside of the family is a big part of being a teenager.
That’s not an off-the-cuff assertion or something we think we know from our years of working with teenagers. It’s based on the latest scientific data in adolescent development and behavioral neurobiology.
Here’s what you, as a parent, need to know: in a nutshell, the brain develops from back to front. The back of the brain is responsible for the basics, like movement and emotions. The front of the brain is responsible for higher level functioning, abstract thinking, logical decision-making, and impulse control. Although the important parts of the front brain – the cortex and prefrontal cortex – develop early in life, connections between the front brain and back brain develop and become more efficient during the pre-teen and teen years.
What does this little brain science lesson have to do with winter break?
It’s all about that impulse control thing.
The front-back connections are crucial. When your teen is at school, in class, fully focused on what they’re doing, both parts of the brain are occupied with the tasks at hand. Social norms and school rules constrain their behavior. But when your teenager is at home over break, things change. The norms still exist, but they’re not front-and-center. The structure and rules are not present.
And if you’re a working parent, the chances are you won’t be present the entire time, either.
The Control Room
Time to get inside your teenager’s brain.
The home-for-the-holidays version.
They’re going to have impulses – fact. Most of those impulses come from the back of the brain – fact. The front of their brain will do a good job making logical decisions about whether to act on those impulses or not – fact. Also fact: the front of the brain is playing catch-up, in relation to the back of the brain. So, think of your teen, at home (maybe alone) with lots of time on their hands. A thousand and one impulses come from the back of their brain. The front of the brain helps them make good choices about, say, nine-hundred ninety-nine of them.
It’s the two that fall through the cracks that can trip them up.
That’s where you come in.
You’ve probably noticed that part of parenting a teen is acting like an external prefrontal cortex for them. That’s part of what school rules and social norms do, too. And that’s what you need to think about when looking at winter break with your teen: it’s likely they’re going to need a little help with those impulses.
Granted, your teen might be fine. And we’re not talking about the entire vacation, either. More like those tricky two weeks when you’re busy and they’re not. You know the weeks we’re talking about, because they’ve been a thorn in your side for years: the week before Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
One of the things they don’t cover in the parenting manual is what to do with your kid during those two weeks. When they were younger, no big deal. But now that the stakes are a higher, having a teen at loose ends during those two weeks might be a very big deal.
The idea is to keep them busy and focused.
The best way to do that is to go on a family vacation for almost the entire break. But if practical realities like work and cost prevent that, you have to get creative and find tasks or activities to occupy their time. Which is doable, if you get your teen on board and find things that interest them.
What you decide depends on a lot of things. Each family will do winter vacation in their own way. We also don’t want to be too Christmas-centric, here. However, the reality that everyone has to deal with is that winter break lasts for two to three weeks from the end of December through the beginning of January. That’s true regardless of your cultural heritage or what holiday you celebrate. For instance, if you live in the Los Angeles Unified School District, your break this year starts December 17th and lasts until January 7th.
We know – the school board didn’t check in with us, either, when they approved that schedule back in 2017.
So, how can you keep your teen focused and occupied over this winter break?
Here’s our list of suggestions:
- Volunteering. A great way to keep a teen busy and teach them valuable life lessons is to find ways for them to help others. No need to go on a service adventure to a developing country: people need help everywhere. From big cities to small towns, you can find volunteer opportunities in homeless shelters, senior centers, and everything in between. Literacy, the environment, you name it. If you need help, start here: American Red Cross Youth and Habitat for Humanity.
- Winter Break Camps. Depending on where you live, you can find day camps for your teen to cover those pesky weeks before and after Christmas. Savvy camp directors in most bigger cities align their schedules with local school districts. Since we’re not really in the advertising business, we’ll let you search for those yourself. But we’re sure it won’t take long to locate sports, computer, or performing arts camps close to you.
- Closet Clean–Up and Donation. While this may only account for one or two full days of time, it’s still a great idea to have your teen go through their room, decide what they don’t use any more, and find a way to pass it on to someone in need. Toys, books, and clothes can all make an enormous difference in someone’s life. After you check the The United Way, Goodwill, and The Salvation Army, look into donating to a local children’s hospital. Also, keep an eye out for church clothing drives in your community. Pro tip: after they finish their room, send them up to the attic or out to the garage to do the same thing.
- Lifeguarding and/or CPR Certifications. A bonus here is that certification courses take up time, glorious time. The Red Cross offers the go-to credentials accepted by any organization that requires certification for employment. If that doesn’t interest them, consider a SCUBA Course.
- Find a Summer Job or Internship. It’s not too early to get the ball rolling for a summer job or cool internship. In fact, it’s exactly the right time. Plum positions fill up quickly. Most summer camps and swimming pools start accepting counselor and lifeguard applications right after the holidays, and businesses start looking for interns not long after that. Your teen can get certified and line up job prospects before the new year – that’s a welcome gift to any parent.
A Window of Opportunity
We admit it: the gist of this article is that without your help, your teen might get in trouble over the winter break. We don’t mean to be pessimistic or intend to doubt you, your parenting skills, or the quality of your kid’s character. What we want is for you to go into winter break with your eyes open and remember that decisions made during adolescence have a significant impact on what happens in adulthood. That cuts both ways: the effects can be positive or negative. A counterproductive decision can lead to problems down the line, but productive decisions – like volunteering or finding an interesting job – can lead to life-changing and life-affirming experiences that last for decades. Talk to your teen, make a plan, and use this upcoming down-time to set them up for success in the years to come.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.