3 Tips for Thanksgiving with Teens

Family setting table

How do you make Thanksgiving meaningful for teenagers? Often, Thanksgiving begins to lose its meaning at this stage of their life and becomes more of a dinner party. It may also become more of an obligation depending on your teenager’s take on family gatherings. Really, teenagers are us, just on the cusp of becoming adults. If we’re honest, sometimes Thanksgiving loses its meaning even in our own hearts. 

How do we engage our teenagers in a way that makes Thanksgiving meaningful for them? How do we avoid the inevitable sighs and eye rolls that indicate their intense displeasure for being made to forsake their friends and video games?

Let’s be truthful. Often Thanksgiving gets lost in the preparation for the actual holiday. “Thanksgiving” becomes a title rather than an action. There are many ways to include children in the practice of giving thanks. Remembering our historical roots, counting God’s blessings for our family, considering our health and security, etc. There are fun Thanksgiving crafts to make with cut-out construction paper and handprint turkeys. Kids drink in the elements of giving thanks because it’s relatable, fun, and frankly, it instills an element of hope. Hope that everything we give thanks for will and can continue.

I think teenagers become just savvy enough to realize that trouble and trial are knocking on their doors. That the façade of construction paper turkeys and Pilgrims and the Mayflower comes with other elements that darken their stories and even tarnish them in a way. When history is no longer a fairy tale of heroes, but instead a compilation of the unending circle of man versus survival. Once that is realized, Thanksgiving can almost become a mockery of reality. Teenagers are on their way to becoming jaded. 

Connecting with your teenager will probably mean some deep diving into yourself. What is thanksgiving, really? Not just the holiday, but the meaning of giving thanks? Are we truly gathering to focus on the feasts of our blessings, or has the holiday become a rote tradition that merely glosses the surfaces of blessed events and instead centers around the dinner table and a football game?

Okay, let’s be straight here. Very few teenagers are going to be comfortable going deep. A lot of adults aren’t either. But thanksgiving, true thanksgiving includes a big “despite” after the word.

I will give thanks despite my tribulations.

I will give thanks despite my loss.

I will give thanks despite the unknown.

I will give thanks among strangers.

I will give thanks in all things.

Thanksgiving is more than a holiday. Thanksgiving is a state of the heart. A teenager is quick to identify the hypocrisy of the holiday, the unrest of adult attempts to salvage a sentimental nostalgia of childhood innocence, and truthfully, it’s boring. Really. Outside of the football game, and maybe a few board games or something. How do we re-center our teenagers? How do we re-center ourselves to be a genuine example for our teenagers? 

1. Try Being Honest

Now isn’t the time to continue to gloss-coat Thanksgiving with fun stories and activities. We did that with them as children, and it was a good thing because it set the foundation for finding hope and something in which to give thanks to the Lord. But now? Be honest with your teenager. Maybe this is the holiday where you sit down with them the night before the big dinner and cut to the chase of what’s happened in your family this year. 

Have you lost a loved one who will not be at the dinner table tomorrow? Have you moved to a new location, and they’ve lost their friends and connections? Are you short on finances and struggling to make ends meet? Are they failing classes in school? Did their football team lose the game last Friday, or are they benched because of poor performance? 

Call it what it is. Your teenagers are at the stage of life where they don’t want nostalgia. They want truth. They want to be welcomed into the inner circle of adulthood, where we all must learn that a considerable part of being thankful really is in being together. And not together to eat a bird and a few cranberries, but together in the battle that is life. Your teen wants to know they are not alone. So even if they roll their eyes when you try to talk to them about the realities of thanksgiving in the midst of doing life, trust me, Parent, they are listening.

2. Try Inclusion

A simple process is including your teenager in the holiday preparations. This doesn’t mean giving your son the job of cleaning the bathrooms before the guests arrive or your daughter the task of baking the pumpkin pie. But it does mean including them in the conversations. 

Does your child have a gift for planning? Maybe you want to seek their opinion on how Thanksgiving Day should be orchestrated if you’re the lucky host/hostess for the family shindig. Or perhaps, your teenager simply wants to be asked if they would like to be involved in the planning—or if they even want to go to Thanksgiving. 

It doesn’t dawn on us that our teenagers may be at the tentative ages of wanting to be somewhere other than the traditional family gathering. Maybe they have a boyfriend/girlfriend, and they want to split time with the families. By asking them, you include them in the decision-making process. Even if, in the end, you’re adamant they are at the family Thanksgiving, by discussing it with them instead of commandeering them, you’re opening up an avenue of communication that will probably instill an element of thankfulness in their hearts. They’ll be thankful you’re willing to listen, and when a consensus is reached, and when/if you’re sitting across from them at the table this Thanksgiving, it will be a mutual decision and not a force-fed holiday.

3. Try Being Vulnerable 

I remember very clearly the Thanksgiving my mom broke down in the kitchen weeping because her dad wasn’t going to be at the dinner, she hated the pressure of cooking, a lot of company was coming, it was overwhelming her, and she wasn’t a big fan of one of the guests who often criticized more than showed gratitude. When my mom allowed me to see her human side, she was no longer super mom with unreachable levels of hope, joy, and thanksgiving. She was relatable.

I could relate to my mom because, frankly, I had many of the same feelings. Granted, I wasn’t cooking, but I wasn’t looking forward to being descended on with a bunch of older family members or being regaled with ancient stories of ancestral successes, and I really, really did not like sweet potatoes even if they put marshmallows on top. 

In the end, my mom and I began to laugh because we both felt the same way. Instead of hiding it, we mocked the irony that we were feeling very ungrateful on a day when there were a lot of blessings. Vulnerability drove us together and, in the togetherness, we found an element of unity and thankfulness that lasted long through the day. 

Your teenagers want to know you. Not the trumped-up version of happy mom or dad. But the human you, in all your frailties and weaknesses. So, when you finally gather at the dinner table, they can see you giving thanks—authentic thanks—even when you may be at your weakest. 

Thanksgiving can be a rich and deep time that you share with your teenager. It can be relational, emotional, and spiritual as you come alongside them this year, drawing them in as more of an equal in the celebration. 

Thankfulness is never easy—that’s why we celebrate it. To be thankful for something usually means we walked through the valleys to get to the foothills where we can pause and look back and say, “wow. We made it through.” It’s when we bow in prayer, our needs met, and in a sneaky glance across the table, you meet your teenager’s eyes, and suddenly, you’re sharing a holiday as adults. Thankful. Despite.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages

Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. The Christy Award-Winning author of “The House on Foster Hill”, Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing suspenseful mysteries stained with history's secrets. Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com!




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