Buying gifts for others is always difficult but buying gifts for pre-teens and teenagers as an adult from another era is nearly impossible. If you do not spend a lot of time with the teenager and you do not have someone giving you pointers the best thing to do is give them money or a generic gift card. This can make the gift impersonal however and sometimes, in certain circumstances, that is just not enough.

When my siblings and I started having children we all lived in the same city. Our children were fairly close in ages and we spent quite a bit of time together. The cousins had an absolute blast together and when the time came for them to move away it was hard on everyone. I had always done my best to make sure my nieces and nephews knew how very much I loved them, so when they moved away coming up with ways to demonstrate my love to them became difficult.

They were still quite small when they moved away so in the beginning it was easier. I would talk to them on the phone and find out what they were interested in. I too had young children so when it came time for birthdays or Christmas gifts my kids were quick to come up with a gift idea. But I did not want to be the kind of relative who only sent gifts a couple times a year as a dutiful obligation. I wanted the kids to know that if they needed someone I would be there and that I was always thinking of them. And I realize gift giving is not being there for them but when they are little small gifts speak volumes.

I have always been the type of person to give small gifts to my own children on all the holidays and just because. One year when I was looking for gifts to give my children I thought about making up some care packages for the nieces and nephews as well. Holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Independence Day, and sometimes a just because package. We had a really neat fabric/craft store near our home that always had small seasonal items that appealed to my kids so as I shopped for my kids I picked up two extra sets for the kiddos. My kids loved to help me put these packages together. Not only was it a great way to let the nieces and nephews know we care but it was a great way to teach my kids about giving as well.

The packages would include cards for each child, some candies that traveled well, and some small gifts. Things like stickers, note pads, colored pencils, wax teeth, bubbles, twisted straws, beads, etc. They really liked the sponge capsules, anything Nerf, and PEZ dispensers. You would be surprised at how easy it is to put together a package for young children; even the dollar store has some wonderful things. It does not have to be expensive and the toys do not have to last forever, even the most expensive toys generally do not get played with long. The excitement that grew out of anticipation from my nieces and nephews was the greatest fun. Sometimes we would include a dollar in their cards which is a big deal for young children. The little girls loved to get the plastic jewelry and fairy wings and the boys loved things like the small Nerf guns and wiggly lizards and snakes.

The kids looked forward to these care packages three or four times a year between birthdays and Christmas. They would call up and talk about each and everything in the box. I loved getting those excited calls each time. It helped us to stay close over the years as they grew older. I was very thankful that we were able to have that bond because things happened over the years that made it even more critical that we stay connected.

I was so thankful I had a close connection with these children because they needed another adult to talk to. Sometimes talking to your own parents is hard but being able to talk to another adult that loves you works and it keeps you from turning to the wrong people and the wrong advice. I grew up with an uncle who made sure he had this connection with us and it made a world of difference so I wanted to do the same thing for these children. And over the years I have gotten many calls for advice and cries for help that I was more than happy to receive. I thank God that I made myself available to these children.

Now, as the kids started getting to the pre-teen and teenage years it became quite a bit harder as far as gifts go. I usually relied on one of their siblings to help me out but sometimes I had the opportunity to go beyond just a gift in the mail. Sometimes I had the opportunity to be with them in person. One particular year one of my nephews happened to be visiting with his dad and his birthday was coming up shortly. I was racking my brain as to what gift I could give them and how I could make it much more special. It occurred to me that I actually had them right there with me so I should make the most of it. I thought that perhaps I could make a day of it if they would go along with it. I thought that I could take them out to lunch and then shopping and let them pick out something they wanted. Most teens are into clothes or technology that is very personal to their own personality so I figured I could catch two birds with one stone. I got the chance to spend a little one on one time with them, listen to what was going on in their lives, and let them pick out something that they love.

This first lunch/gift date was my first and it was with my youngest nephew who was turning thirteen. He looked at me a little warily like he wondered what he was going to be grilled about at lunch. He has the reputation of being ornery from time to time. But as the day went on and he saw that it was all about him having fun and getting what he wanted for his birthday it worked out beautifully. He is at that age where they wear the shirts with the funny sayings on them and we hit a gold mine when we found an entire section dedicated to these types of shirts. We had a great time laughing about some of the silly shirts we saw and we thought of several people we should buy some of them for as well! Not only did we get to go to lunch wherever he wanted but after shopping we stopped for an ice cream and chatted some more.

This is a wonderful gift and way to let a young person know you love them and a great opportunity to see what is going on in their lives at the same time. He was able to share with me some concerns he had in different areas of his life, some that I could help with and some that I simply listened to. Sometimes it is not all about solving things; sometimes it is just being an ear that listens. So many kids do not feel comfortable talking to their own folks and have no one with any wisdom to talk to. As an adult who loves them you can offer them a safe haven to come to and share anxieties that otherwise may get buried or shared with the wrong people. Give the gift of love and you can not go wrong.

Ken Myers is a father of three and passionate about great childcare. He’s always looking for ways to help families find the support they need to live fuller, richer lives. Find out more about expert childcare by checking out @go_nannies on Twitter.