Do you dread the meltdowns that come with giving gifts to your children during the holidays?
I remember last year as my daughter was opening her first gift of the holiday season. My husband and I could see the excitement for the gift crash into disappointment quickly as she caught a glimpse of what was in the package. It wasn’t the Frozen toy from Costco that she tells me she wants every time we go in – it was pyjamas. We braced ourselves for the meltdown we knew was coming.
It can feel so frustrating when our children are so disappointed with the gifts we give them that they have a full-blown meltdown, and while we want our children to be grateful for the gifts they receive, it’s also important to support them through their big feelings.
How can we encourage our children to be grateful while also supporting their feelings of disappointment around gifts?
Don’t force the “thank you.”
My daughter didn’t realize we were trying to create a magical family tradition of wearing new PJs around the holidays, but she did recognize this wasn’t what she wanted, and she felt disappointed.
My husband and I could have responded by telling her about this new tradition we were starting and how she needed to say “thank you”.
“Mia, we got you new pyjamas in your favourite colour. We spent a lot of time picking them out, and you need to say thank you.”
We realized that if we started to force our children to be grateful and say “thank you,” we would be taking away the meaning of the words. They won’t understand what it means to be thankful because we are forcing them to say the words in a moment where they don’t genuinely feel grateful.
We don’t want our children to say words like “thank you” out of habit. We want them to understand the meaning behind the words and appreciate what it means for our loved ones to do something special for us.
Teach about mixed feelings
We can allow the disappointment and use it as an opportunity to wonder aloud about mixed feelings.
“I’m noticing your face right now; what are you feeling….”
“It’s not Frozen….”
“I wonder if you are a little disappointed it’s not what you wanted, and at the same time, you are thankful for PJs in your favourite colour?”
Mixed Feelings are Complex
The ability to feel two things at once and understand how our words make others feel is a skill that takes time and practice for our children to learn. If their first reaction to opening a gift that isn’t what they wanted is disappointment, that’s not ungratefulness; it is them being a child.
To set the stage for success, BEFORE opening gifts, we can help them understand they can have two feelings about what they receive.
We want them to understand that they can be grateful, AND it might not be the gift they wanted.
They can be happy about the gift AND disappointed that it’s not the one they wanted.
One of my favourite tools for teaching children is storytelling. Most children can relate easily to stories, so telling them about a time you had mixed feelings about a gift or even narrating the story unfolding in the moment can be helpful.
“I remember when I was a kid, sometimes I’d get gifts that weren’t on my list. Even though I was so thankful that Grandma and Papa took the time to think about what I would like, I was still a little sad it wasn’t the present I wanted.”
“You were hoping this gift was going to be the Frozen toy you asked for at the store. I can see you are upset it wasn’t in there, but you are still excited to try on the new dress Grandma got you. That’s tough!”
“It’s special that people take the time to think about you when you aren’t there. It’s ok to be disappointed with the gift but also still grateful that you have people who love you and think about you when you aren’t around.”
Set the stage for success
There are a few things we can do to set the stage for success when opening gifts.
It can be harder for children to regulate their emotions when they are hungry, tired or overstimulated. Plan ahead and choose a time to open gifts when their bellies are full and they are well-rested. Let them know the plan ahead of time – “after we have breakfast and clean up the kitchen we are going to open some gifts together!”
Set Realistic Expectations
Take some time before opening gifts to talk to your children about what it means to receive a gift. Explain to them that when people we love give us gifts, it means that they were thinking about us when we weren’t even there, that is so special!
“It is so fun to get a gift from Papa! When you open your gift from Papa it might not be exactly what you were hoping for, but try to remember that Papa picked this out just for you because he loves you so much!”
When teaching gratefulness, one of the best things your can do is model. Use opportunities during the weeks leading up to the gifts to let them hear you say thank you, to share stories about what it’s like to be a gift giver and receiver. Let them hear how the gift process is about thinking about someone even when they aren’t there.
“I love this picture that you made for me! It made me feel so special when you told me you made it just for me. Thank you!”
Tune in with your own response
Finally, if you are struggling to support your child through their holiday meltdowns around gifts, I would encourage you as parents to tune into your own responses and get curious about why you want your child to be grateful for their gifts. The messages we were given about gifts growing up will often affect how we expect our children to respond.
Here are some reflection questions to consider:
- How were gifts presented to you as a child?
- Did you get in trouble if you didn’t respond with happiness?
- What values do you have behind gift-giving?
- What do you believe about yourself when a child opens a present?
Kids are great at honesty. If they are disappointed about a gift they receive, they are not being ungrateful – displaying mixed feelings is a skill that takes time and practice. Be patient, try to set the stage for success, and model.