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My Son Has Outgrown Our Family Traditions. We’re Creating New Ones.

This year, for the first time ever, my teenager decided not to trick or treat. He was happy to attend the local Halloween parade, and even dressed up a little for that. But when evening struck and it came time to hit the streets ringing doorbells, he gave us a clear, “Nope.”

I should have seen it coming from a mile away. After all, he’s 14-years-old and just started high school. Why on earth did I entertain the notion that he’d want to trick or treat?

I was a bit heartbroken.

I know my kids are growing up, and that’s great, but milestones like this hit me in the gut. I started to wonder what the holiday season would look like this year. Would everything change?

Would he refuse to participate in our family’s Thanksgiving tradition where we each go around the table saying what we’re thankful for? Would he refuse to play dreidel during Chanukah? Would the magic of Christmas morning be a total bust for him? (Yes, we celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas.)

I realize that I probably sound a little dramatic. But I think we parents (especially moms!) can get caught up in things like this. After all, we are the ones who spend each holiday making the magic happen. From the moment our kids are born, we look forward to their first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas. We relish every moment of all the special occasions.

So, to see it all come to a crashing halt—and so suddenly, in my case—can feel like a shock to the system.

Eventually, I pulled myself together and realized I needed a game plan to get through all these sudden changes that I saw on the horizon as we entered the holiday season. I needed to figure out how to cope emotionally with the changes, and also come up with ideas for him to participate in more age appropriate ways. It was time to create new family traditions.

I’m not sure if my plan will work, but here’s what I came up with for how to survive the holiday season with a teen who may want little (if anything) to do with his childhood traditions.

1. No pressure!

When my son first told me he didn’t want to trick or treat, I will admit that I tried to nudge him a little in the direction of participating. “Come on!” I said, “You don’t have to ring the doorbells like your brother will, but just come along.” That… was not the best tactic. Trying to push my son into doing something he didn’t want to do makes him more annoyed and resistant. Noted.

2. Don’t take it personally 

It’s easy to take our kids’ preferences personally. When they stop wanting to participate in an activity or family tradition they’ve participated in for years, we wonder if they just don’t like our family anymore. We feel upset that they don’t want to spend time with us. But the truth is, these things have little to do with us. It’s just a normal part of individuating, something that teens are becoming experts at.

3. Acknowledge that holidays can be stressful

Most adults understand that holidays can be a stressful time. There’s the pressure to make everything perfect, and to appreciate the wonder of the season. But holidays can be times of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, too. Even for teenagers. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that and treat our teens with empathy if they show signs of holiday stress.

4. Find grown up ways for them to participate

I have started to broach the subject of the upcoming holidays with my son, asking him what activities he’d like to participate in. Yes, there are several things that he’ll probably bow out of, but he has a little brother at home who is still very much into all the kid-centered holiday traditions. So our plan is for our teen to help create some of that magic for him. He’ll help his brother set out treats for Santa and help us place his gifts under the tree after he goes to bed. 

5. Ask them for input

This is a big one for us. Rather than assuming I have any idea what new holiday traditions my son wants to participate in, I’ve just been asking him open-ended questions about it all. I’ve also been asking his advice about the most comfortable ways for him to be involved. Surprisingly, there are still lots of traditions he wants to be involved in. But letting him call the shots seems to be the best way to make him feel excited and relaxed about participating.

I’m not sure how it will all turn out, but even if my son participates in the holidays in a much more peripheral way this year, there will still be many opportunities for him to feel the warmth, magic, and togetherness of the holiday season. 

And yes, my heart is breaking a bit as I let go of some of our old holiday traditions. But there is also something really special about my son and I working together to create new and meaningful traditions—for both of us. 

Wendy Wisner

Wendy Wisner’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a frequent contributor to yourteenmag.com.

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