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How to Make the Holidays Meaningful for Families With Teens

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If you're wondering what makes for a successful holiday season with your teenage or young adult children, I can spell out your goal in three words: Get them talking.

Based on our six years of Sticky Faith research at the Fuller Youth Institute with over 500 high school students as they transition to college, we've become relentless cheerleaders for the importance of parents' relationships with children. There is no force or factor more important in your child's life development than you as their parent.

You maximize that influence when you have good conversations with them.

Note that I didn't say when you "lecture" them.

Nor did I say when you "interrogate" them.

Instead, try these tips to help you talk with children in organic and more fruitful ways.

1. Let conversation happen in their timeframe, in their terms.
Imagine when you least want to engage in a deep conversation with your spouse or close friend. When you're watching a football game or really needing to focus on e-mail, conversation can feel like an annoying interruption. That's likely the same way your child will feel if you force the conversation, but even more so because... well... you're their parent. Be sensitive to your child's mood and schedule. Try clearing out your calendar as much as possible over the holidays so that you'll be available to talk when and if your child ever wants to. But don't force it.

2. Leverage shopping and errands.
While you want conversations to evolve on your kid's terms, there are steps you can take to leverage the shopping and errands that comprise much of a typical family's "quality time" over the holidays. While holiday errands can cause serious withdrawals on your bank account, that time together could become a deposit in your relational bank account with your child. To try to cash in on that time, add time at the end of fighting the crowds for you to grab a meal or coffee together. Make sure you actually sit and look each other eye to eye. Avoid asking "yes" or "no" questions, or interrogating your children. So instead of asking "Are you partying?" try asking, "What do you like to do on a Friday night?"

Rather than asking, "Did you pass all your classes?" say, "What was your favorite class and why?"

Instead of interrogating, "Are your friends a good influence?" instead try, "What do you like about your friends?"

If these sorts of questions are counter-intuitive to you, you might want to think ahead about the areas of your son or daughter's life that you'd like to discuss and brainstorm a few open-ended questions that can help you get out of the shallow end and into deeper conversational waters.

3. Ask your children which family traditions are most important to them, and then do those.
You might have a long list of wishes, but it's time for you to get in the passenger's seat and let your kids get behind the wheel in choosing family traditions. Often it's during those few family traditions that your kids have selected when the conversational walls come tumbling down.

4. Ask your kids if there's anyone else they would like to see over the holidays
Maybe you don't have the kind of relationship with your kids in which such conversation is possible. Perhaps there's too much water under the bridge. That's all the more reason to ask your young adult child if there are any friends or adults with whom they'd like to connect over the holiday break. If your son or daughter has a special bond with a member of your extended family who will be in town, do what you can to give the two of them space to grab some coffee or take a walk. A few moments of quality time can be the relational fuel your child needs to propel through the new year.

5. Take initiative with other adults and ask them to be proactive in connecting with your child.
Just today I talked with a grandmother whose goal over Christmas is to get a one-on-one meal with each of her five teenage and college-aged grandchildren. She's already told them that she wants them to come ready to ask her three questions (any three questions of their choosing), and she will do the same. If there's a neighbor, church or synagogue member, or extended family member who has that sort of relationship with your child, let them know when they will be out of school and ask if they'd take your child out for a hike or a breakfast.

While the goal of "get them talking" is short, that doesn't mean it's simple or easy. But few great things in life are. As any parent knows, connecting with your children is one of life's great things.

For more information about the Sticky Faith research, visit stickyfaith.org to order resources, including the recent book, or peruse a host of free online resources.