Holiday harmony: a guide for parents and teenagers
Try to coordinate your and your teen’s expectations to make this a relaxing, stress-free summer
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
Few parents relish the long break from school that stretches ahead for their teenagers. Summer jobs are practically nonexistent these days, and unless they are particularly motivated themselves, parents might feel that all their teenagers wish for is time to be idle and free.
Some parents feel the secondary school summer break is too long. A three-month break from a solid routine and an environment that is conducive to learning adds up to a lot more days than many parents would choose for their offspring to be idle.
Yet the vast majority of adolescents relish the idea of this long period of rest from school, viewing it as a time to unwind and shift gear, away from the pressure of academic work.
Tension can build within families over this extended summer break. Teenagers can become bored and demanding; parents can become frustrated and impatient.
There are two main reasons for this rise in stress and tension during the summer. One is that family members have expectations of each other that are not being met, or even expressed. Secondly, they are not communicating about their hopes for the summer and how to achieve harmony in the home in time, if at all.
The impact of this rise in tension and stress for a family unit can have a bad effect on all family relationships, not just the parent-teenager one. The couple relationship within the family can become strained as the overall atmosphere becomes more tense. Then the level of intimacy felt by parents towards each other can become lost in an environment of continuous argument and disagreement.
But it is possible to plan the summer mindfully, by having a sense of where you wish to go and how you wish to get there, maintaining awareness of each moment as it comes.
Taking action in timeIt is possible for parents to avoid conflict during the summer by sitting down and making a plan about how to create the context for harmonious family life over the coming weeks.
They can take charge of creating the context for harmonious living and can do so in a way that does not result in teenagers feeling as if they are being “controlled”.
The first step involves reflecting on what you expect from each person in the family over the summer, and what you expect from yourself.
It is important, if there are two parents in the family, that these hopes and expectations are shared with the other parent first, as any differences in opinion about what a teenager is and is not allowed to do can be aired and agreed upon before the conversation with the teenager begins.
ExpectationsOne of the most important things for parents to work out early in the summer are their expectations of the teenager. It is best to be specific, as this is part of what will help when it comes to talking clearly with the teenager about it.
If a parent expects their teenager will be more helpful and more involved in household chores, given that they have more free time, it is important to be specific in relation to what exactly is expected. For example, would making dinner for the family once a week meet your expectation, or would more be expected? Would you like them to help out in the garden or do some cleaning?
Most parents reasonably expect some increase in the amount of effort teenagers make within the household over the summer. Some teenagers may expect this to translate into more money in their pocket at the end of each week. Teenagers are on their way towards adulthood, so the increased level of responsibility for chores can help prepare them for life.
Making a list, thinking it through and then asking the other parent to go through it also allows space for clear communication to happen between the couple. This will prevent tension between them later on if expectations are not being met by the teenager.
If both parents are clear of the other’s expectations, they are more likely to back each other up.
It is good for parents to consider their expectations about time spent on social media or engaged with technology; time spent with friends and away from the house compared with the amount of time spent with family; expectations around curfews, financial support, lifts to and from places, and so on. When a parent has a clear idea about each of these areas, it is a good time then, to introduce the topic to the teenager.
The context of communicating with teenagersGoing through the teenage years can be difficult. There are many changes happening for teenagers and intense feelings such as infatuation, frustration and anger can be hard for teenagers to deal with.
Teenagers are often self-conscious and can seem to adults to be somewhat self-absorbed. This can reflect their often-felt worry and preoccupation with what others think of them. As this is something that matters greatly to a lot of teenagers, being around peers becomes a very important aspect of teenage life.
Peer contact – either face-to-face or online – serves as a way for the teenager to get direct or indirect feedback about themselves.
It is within peer groups that teenagers really get to work out their identity: under the surface, in their unconscious mind, this a major question teenagers deal with on an ongoing basis. Who am I? What does the world think of me? What will I think of myself? These questions are psychologically where teenagers are at, even though they are largely unaware of that fact themselves. This explains the preoccupation with peer contact.
Every teenager is different and it is very important that any discussion about expectations includes some question about how much contact a teenager wishes to have with their peers.
It is important for parents to recognise how important this contact can be for teenagers and not to be dismissive of their desire to see their friends a lot.
It is also, however, good that some balance is struck and that teenagers are encouraged not to become reliant on feedback from peers to work out how they view themselves. Some time with family is good for teenagers as this will be character forming, as well as good for overall family life.
Starting the conversationBeginning the conversation with a teenager about their hopes and expectations for the summer can be tricky. Parents do not wish to be seen as nagging, and many parents fear that bringing up a conversation about expectations of each other will be viewed in a negative light.
Viewing the conversation as an opportunity to look together at how the teenager and the rest of the family can have an enjoyable summer is a good way to introduce the topic.
It is important to let the teenager know ahead of time that this is something you wish to chat to them about, perhaps mentioning it very briefly and then scheduling a time to talk and relax together over the coming days.
When parents sit down and begin the conversation, it is good for the parent to try to take on a listening position. That way, it is more likely that the teenager will feel heard and will, in turn, then be more ready to hear the parent.
To ask the teenager what they wish their summer to be like and what they are looking forward to, is a good positive way to begin. Teenagers may not have thought it through but by prompting them, it is possible to elicit a sense of how they wish the summer to be.
It is important to be specific with them about the people they wish to have contact with over the summer, how much of it is in person and how much of it is online.
Inquire gently, as this then provides an opportunity for parents to get a sense of how much their social life is online and therefore not “real” social contact. Social contact that is face to face is better for teenagers than too much social contact online. This conversation allows a space for the parent to articulate this view.
Communicating about the communicationIt is useful if only part of the initial discussion involves expressing expectations and negotiating around chores and curfews. Another part of this initial discussion should be about how communication will happen as the summer goes along, as expectations and wishes can change.
It is important for the parent to emphasise and acknowledge that even if an initial plan has been agreed, there may be times during the summer when the parent expects more from the teenager or the teenager wants more from the parent. Both parties should have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of any agreed plan and there should be a way to check in and review how things are going with each other.
Building in this period of time to review or revisit the agreement is part of what will keep the atmosphere good through the summer.
A particular time each week, either out of the house going for a walk together or in the house with no distractions around, is worth scheduling. This built-in checking-in time will act as a buffer against tensions rising.
Enthusiasm and unplugging
Parents are often stressed and busy, and it can be hard for them to imagine being in teenagers’ shoes. But it is important for parents to try, and to tune into their memories of their own school summer holidays. That way, parents will connect more easily with how their teenager might be feeling and may end up wishing they too had a long break from work and routine.
The lack of structure at summer brings so much opportunity for teenagers; to experience life in a different way, to take time to get out into nature, to be in the world at a different pace to how they are the rest of the year. But with the rise in the amount of time teenagers are spending on social media and on technology, they are missing many opportunities the natural world has to offer them.
Parents have a role to play in encouraging teenagers to unplug and get outdoors into nature. Parents, by becoming enthusiastic about unplugging themselves, set the example for the teenager. Again, a specific expectation can be expressed in relation to this plan to unplug.
Parents can take control now of creating the context for harmonious family life this summer. Beginning the conversation with a sense of enthusiasm and positivity means parents are much more likely to succeed. Working hard all year, parents deserve a relaxing time through summer just as much as any teenager does.
Express expectations: it is only through shaping the conversation that parents get to shape the family’s world. Anne McCormack is a family therapist accredited to FTAI and ICP