Thanksgiving Break: 5 Signs Your Teen Needs Help

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Thanksgiving is that wonderful time of the year when the extended family gathers to feast, play games, watch sports—and grill the kids about how they’re doing at school and what they want to be when they grow up. Surprisingly (not!), teens and young adults don’t love Thanksgiving conversation starters that focus on their academics and future achievements. But for parents, the holiday can be an opportunity to listen closely for clues indicating that a teen needs help with mental health concerns.

Even when kids are still living at home, parents and teens might not make time on a regular basis to connect at a deeper level—because of their busy everyday routines or because their relationship is challenging. Moreover, many families have such a packed schedule that they don’t eat meals together, so they miss this natural chance to check in. Furthermore, for college students, Thanksgiving break is often their first trip home since the summer, so parents and kids may be a little out of touch.

Therefore, a holiday gathering might be one of the few times when adolescents spend a number of hours engaging with their parents and other adults. And the way teens act, including how they respond to questions from relatives who haven’t seen them in a while, can give parents information and insight.

Here are five signs to watch for at the Thanksgiving table.

1. A teen’s responses seem canned and emotionless.

Depression can sometimes manifest as a lack of visible emotion, or a flat, expressionless tone of voice. If your teen doesn’t sound excited about anything they’re doing and shares only the absolute minimum required, this may be a warning sign of a mental health issue.

2. They’re irritable, angry, or weepy when responding to questions.

On the other side of the coin, mood swings and depression are also linked. In addition, irritability and tension can be symptoms of anxiety, trauma, or other mental health issues. It’s certainly not unusual for teens to be moody and emotional, but don’t brush off reactions that seem way out of proportion.

3. They don’t mention any friends or extracurricular activities.

Even when they’re surrounded by peers, many adolescents suffer from social isolation. In fact, research shows that college environments can intensify feelings of loneliness and FOMO (fear of missing out). Hence, it might indicate that your teen needs help if they don’t share anything about their social activities or friend group.

4. They withdraw during the gathering.

Not everyone loves socializing with family. In addition, introverted teenagers often need to give themselves a break from noisy festivities once in a while. But if they hide out in their room for the majority of the Thanksgiving gathering—or for most of the four- or five day Thanksgiving break—it might be a sign that a teen needs help with social anxiety or depression.


5. Their conversations with younger relatives focus on partying.

The way teens talk to their cousins or siblings can offer valuable insight, especially for a parent who’s wondering, Is my child on drugs? During Thanksgiving, parents might overhear their teens boasting about drinking or drug use with younger members of the family.

What to Do Next

If you see any of these signs in your teen, the next step is to talk with them about what you noticed or heard. Don’t do it during the Thanksgiving gathering, however—wait until you can have a private talk when the house is quiet. And it will go better if you’re able to stay calm and avoid judging, scolding, or criticizing.

Remember that the goals are to find out more about what’s really going on with your teenager or young adult, and to let them know that you’re there for them. Then, if your teen needs help, you can figure out together how to make sure they get the support they need.


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