If you’ve ever had to manage a meltdown after opening gifts, you know that kids who are disappointed or even angry about gifts can be difficult to console. Parents concerned about materialism and lack of gratitude may be tempted to call off the next holiday gift exchange altogether.
If your child has been very disappointed with a holiday gift, don’t throw in the present towel just yet. Instead, parents can coach kids to be gracious gift-givers and receivers, and help them reap the relationship rewards that come with it.
1. Buy a gift for someone in need
Consider buying holiday gifts for a child in need this year, such as through a local organization. This is an excellent opportunity to build empathy as you and your children consider the child’s needs and wants (usually provided by the gift program) and decide what to purchase together. Even the youngest kids can help shop for gifts. They may feel their input is especially valuable if shopping for a child of a similar age. You can ask questions like the following:
- What toys do first graders like?
- What kinds of clothes would you need the most this time of year?
- Let’s choose one extra gift that is not on the list. What would you most want ____ to have this year?
2. Buy gifts for loved ones
Take a similar approach to family and friends. As you brainstorm gift ideas, encourage kids to list as many interests or characteristics of the recipient as they can. Spend some time searching together for unique gifts that match personalities. Here is your chance to reframe the way kids look at gifts: as symbols of thought and care, rather than as exchanges of money. Cost doesn’t matter, but thinking about the other person does.
3. Encourage empathy
Thoughtful gift-giving is empathy in action. When you model this kind of careful consideration, you teach children to attune to others’ feelings, even taking others’ perspectives. You might ask questions like the following:
- If I were Grandpa, and I loved golf and my grandkids more than anything, what would I want this year?
- You told me Aunt Kelly loves to travel, but we can’t get her a trip. Why do you think she loves to travel so much? [possible answers: excitement, learning, discovering new things] What could we give her that might create similar feelings?
4. Let them decide — and buy
For kids who are laser-focused on a specific item, it can help to shift the family culture around gifts. In the weeks leading up to a holiday, instead of concentrating on lists of what your child wants, make a big deal out of deciding what to buy for others — and make sure your child is an integral part of the process.
When it comes to the actual purchase, older kids can choose gifts themselves, either with their own pocket money or on a budget parents set. To emphasize thoughtfulness and empathy again, request that teens and tweens explain why they selected each gift before they make the actual purchase. Younger children can choose from a list of items you compile, or create handmade gifts of their own.
5. Refocus the excitement
Suppose the holiday is only a few days away, and it is too late to change your shopping strategy. In that case, you can still shift the excitement in your household toward gift-giving, not gift receiving. Instead of asking, “What presents are you hoping to get?” (a favorite pre-holiday question from adults), try some of the following questions and statements:
- Who do you think will be the most surprised by their gift?
- What do you think Mommy will say when she sees her present?
- I am so excited for Grandma to open her gift! I think she is going to love it.
- My favorite part of the holiday is watching everyone open presents. I love letting people know how special they are to me.
With this shift in family perspective, you prevent gift disappointment in two important ways. First, the joy kids anticipate and feel on the big day is not riding solely on the gifts they receive. Even if their own gifts are not what they had hoped for, they have positive feelings — and even a boost in self-esteem and efficacy — around knowing they have made others feel cared for. Second, kids will have a better understanding of the challenge of choosing great gifts. Their minds will be primed to empathize when a gift falls short of expectations.
6. Teach them to look outside themselves
What if the gift exchange was this morning, and your child is still in their bedroom crying about the toy they didn’t get this year?
Looking outside themselves with kindness, compassion, and more empathy is the solution here. When your child is calm, take a little time to talk about the gift giver and any circumstances or traits that might help your child understand them better. Then guide your child toward some conclusions about why they might have selected that gift. Here is a sample conversation:
I know the sweater from Great-Aunt Ruth isn’t your style. She doesn’t have any kids around your age, though, so I imagine it was difficult for her to know what fifth graders like to wear. We know she loves to see you, and she sends you cards on your birthday. What do you think she was hoping for when she bought the sweater?
Older kids who have participated in their own gift-giving can take this a step further and think about when they gave a gift someone was disappointed in. Encourage them to explore their feelings around that situation. How did it feel when they realized the gift was a letdown? They can also think about family or friends who are very difficult to buy for. How does it feel to be uncertain or frustrated about what to get someone? Use their answers to guide them toward greater empathy and understanding.
7. Focus on the reasons behind gift-giving
Finally, emphasize the reason we give gifts in the first place: to strengthen relationships. To that end, make a family activity of writing thank you notes for all holiday gifts, even (especially) the disappointing ones. Remind your child that the family member or friend who gave that so-so gift was hoping for a connection. Even if the gift did not create it, kids can reach out with grace and kindness, send a thank-you note, and maintain close bonds with the gift-giver.
Thank you notes for disappointing gifts are also a great way to reinforce gratitude practice. Help your kids identify what they can be thankful for, even in a gift they don’t love. Here are some statements they might include in their cards:
- Thank you so much for thinking of me.
- I really appreciate that you took the time to pick out a special gift for me.
- Thank you for making my holiday so memorable.
Thank you notes also provide a chance for some relationship repair if your child became visibly upset in front of the gift giver. You can take this opportunity to talk about learning from mistakes and the importance of taking action when something needs correcting.
Look forward to brighter holidays
Holidays are full of big emotions for kids, disappointment included. When it comes to gifts, coaching kids to focus on others’ feelings can help avert unwrapping meltdowns. Remember that mindset shift extends to all other areas of your kids’ lives, too! With empathy, kindness, and gratitude as your family focus, the holidays will be more joyful and meaningful for everyone, regardless of what is given or received.