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How to make sure your kid doesn't act like a sullen jerk at family Thanksgiving

Think your reluctant tween can't be a happy camper when your family celebrates Thanksgiving? These expert tips might help.
/ Source: TODAY

Admit it, you’re a little nervous about Thanksgiving this year. You have high hopes for family togetherness, but you just aren’t sure who will show up — the sweet kid who still laughs at your jokes … or the surly pre-teen who would rather hide in her room than spend a minute with you.

The tween spirit — or the lack of it — has dashed many a family’s hopes for holiday harmony.

From the tween’s perspective, holidays are hard. They’ve lost the magic of childhood: the parties at school, the thrill of staying up past 8 o’clock to watch holiday specials in their PJs, the wonderment over colorful decorations that seem to appear out of nowhere.

These little losses add up to feelings of disappointment, and even grief. It’s no fun being caught between the kiddie table and the adult conversation. When your kid says it’s boring, it’s true from his perspective. And it’s not unreasonable to feel this way.

So how can you help your tween work through these new feelings and preserve some of your hopes for happy family time during the holidays?

Give kids a role

My son’s baseball coach once said to me, “It isn’t about being the best player on the team. What every kid wants is to feel he’s made a contribution. It doesn’t matter how big, they just want to feel they did something good for the team.”

This is true for more than baseball. Everyone wants to feel he’s made a valuable contribution to the team … or the family.

This is where you get to play coach. Tell your tween, “Hey, I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving, and you’re old enough to start making a valuable contribution that will help us out a lot. Take a look at this list and choose one thing you want to be in charge of this year.”

Thanksgiving Day contributions

  • Make an appetizer or dessert.
  • Be in charge of clearing the plates after the meal.
  • Create a seating assignment and name cards for the table.
  • Find a poem to read as part of the blessing.
  • Be in charge of asking a certain guest (probably the hardest person to talk to — every family has one) three questions during the meal.
  • Research Thanksgiving and lead a post-meal trivia contest.

Carrying on with the sports analogy, my husband has repeatedly told our kids, “I wasn’t always the best player on the team. I often wasn’t. But I was always the best teammate. People knew they could count on me for that.” Being a good teammate with a supportive attitude is a great way to contribute.

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Recreate some nostalgia

Tweens are trapped between being little kids and teenagers, but they — and many parents, too — still long for the traditions of childhood. As you introduce your tween to more grown-up ways to contribute, balance that with nostalgia — especially as school becomes more about test grades than holiday handicrafts. Revisit some childhood fun together. Play music; search Pinterest for “Thanksgiving crafts for tweens”; bake something; look through old photos. Even if they give you an eye roll, most tweens crave an occasional trip down memory lane, especially at the holidays. A lot is changing for them, and it’s nice to be reminded of the stability of family traditions.

Above all else, know that flexibility is the key to family fun at the holidays, especially with a tween. Your holiday may not be the same as it used to be, but in the spirit of gratitude, we can all strive to be thankful for what we have (tween attitudes and all), rather than upset by what we don’t.

Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Learn more about her work with middle schoolers and their parents at