Getting presents is usually a highlight of the holiday season. But for kids who struggle with self-control, exchanging gifts can often lead to frustration and tantrums.
Opening gifts can be especially hard for kids with ADHD who have impulsivity and trouble managing emotions. They may overreact when they don’t like a gift or were expecting something else. They may get very frustrated having to wait their turn. (Kids who experience sensory overload may have meltdowns.)
When kids have tantrums over gifts, it’s stressful and upsetting for everyone. Learn what you can do ahead of time to prevent outbursts — and steps you can take in the moment.
Why tantrums over gifts happen
The excitement, chaos, and lack of routine that often go with the holidays set the stage. Common holiday activities and situations can add pressure to kids who already struggle to keep it together.
For example, if your family has had to travel, your child might feel out of place in unfamiliar surroundings and around unfamiliar people. Plus, there’s the pressure of always having to be on good behavior. Your child may also not be getting enough sleep. All of these factors can leave kids with less ability to keep emotions in check.
Even if you’re celebrating quietly at home, gifts can be a source of stress. The hype and anticipation can be too much to handle. When expectations run high, disappointments can be especially hard to handle.
What you can do in advance
Avoiding frustration and tantrums in the first place is always the best scenario, but it may not always be possible. Here are a few steps you can take in advance.
Help your child know what to expect. Where will you be when you open gifts? When will that happen? What will your child need to do before it’s time to open gifts — have breakfast, visit with family?
Prepare your child for changes. If there will be fewer gifts this year, or if you’ll be exchanging them in a different way, let your child know up-front. Also tell your child if people will be joining you who aren’t usually there.
Be clear about your expectations. Let your child know what behavior you expect, like waiting for others to open gifts and saying “thank you.”
Role-play different gift-giving situations. Give your child the words to say for when something unexpected or disappointing happens.
Decide on a signal. Agree in advance on a look, word, or gesture you can use on the spot to help your child recognize and stop the behavior.
What you can do in the moment
When kids have tantrums or even get grumpy about gifts, it raises the stress level for everyone and can make holidays unpleasant. In the moment, it can be hard to know what to do that won’t make it worse — especially if other people are there. Here are some steps you can take.
Take a deep breath and stay calm. It’s easier said than done. But keeping your own emotions in check gives your child space to regain some self-control. It also keeps the moment from turning into something bigger.
Restate your expectations. Be matter of fact. “We talked about needing to wait your turn. We go one at a time when we give out gifts.” “I know you’re excited, but grabbing isn’t allowed.”
Give your child an option. Insisting on a particular behavior may go absolutely nowhere. Offer an alternative: “I can see you’re having trouble waiting. Once you calm down, you can give out some of the gifts.”
Call out rude or hurtful behavior. Kids often don’t realize what they’re saying or how it impacts others. Tell your child, “What you just said/did was hurtful. You need to apologize.”
Take action. If your child doesn’t stop the behavior, don’t continue to talk about it. Tell your child to leave the room briefly to calm down. Do that as many times as it takes. And in the meantime, continue with your gift-giving.
One of the most helpful things you can do is to stop and observe your child. It may not always be possible to do this. But the more you understand what leads to the tantrums, the better able you’ll be to avoid or stop them. You may even get ideas for changing your gift-giving routine to better fit your child’s needs.
About the author
About the author
Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.
Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.