Why kids have tantrums when they get gifts

By Lexi Walters Wright

At a glance

  • Kids who learn and think differently might get frustrated or overwhelmed during holiday gift exchanges.

  • The pressure to behave well and be social can be too much for some kids to handle.

  • This can lead to tantrums, but there are ways to avoid them.

Getting presents is usually a highlight of the holiday season. But for some kids with learning and thinking differences, gift exchanges can lead to meltdowns or tantrums. Why?

The excitement, chaos, and lack of routine of the holidays set the stage. 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 good.”

But even if you’re celebrating quietly at home, the hype and anticipation may make it hard for kids to keep their emotions in check. When expectations run high, disappointments can be especially hard to handle.

Why opening gifts can be tricky

Holidays tend to increase the intensity of the challenging behaviors and other difficulties kids with learning and thinking differences already have. Imagine how these common gift-exchange situations might play out if your child has the following issues:

The issue: Impatience

The situation: From the moment James arrives at his grandma’s house for Christmas, he asks repeatedly, “Is it time yet? Can we open presents now?” Once it is time, he whines until it’s his turn.

The issue: Impulsivity

The situation: Maya starts handing out the gifts to her cousins the minute they arrive. But before they can open them, she blurts out the contents of each gift, spoiling the surprise.

The issue: Intense focus, rigidity, or inflexibility

The situation: After opening the tablet computer his godparents gave him, Jeffrey begins questioning all the specs. When they don’t know all the electronic details, he gets frustrated, shouting, “But I wanted the one with more memory!”

The issue: Overexcitement

The situation: The first present Jamie opens is the video game she wanted. She gets so excited that she refuses to open any other gifts from her relatives until she can play the new game.

The issue: Extreme sensitivity

The situation: All the adults noisily ooh and aah over the photo album Edwin has just unwrapped. Annoyed, he turns to them and shouts, “Can’t you be quiet? I want to look at it myself!”

The issue: Trouble reading social cues

The situation: Marcus insists that his friend try on the hat he’s just given him. His pal politely shakes his head, but your child grabs the hat and tries to put it on him anyway. When the friend gets angry, your child is confused.

What to do if outbursts occur

Avoiding tantrums or meltdowns in the first place is always the best scenario. But for issues that do come up, it helps if you’ve agreed in advance on a look, word, or gesture you can use on the spot to help your child recognize and stop the behavior.

If your child can’t stop even with a signal from you, you can step in and address the situation. Acknowledge both your child’s perspective and the gift-giver’s sentiment. “It’s true; you do already have that doll! — Aunt Sue must know exactly what you like! Thanks, Aunt Sue!” Then try to move on by introducing another gift or a different topic for conversation. And you can always suggest that your child go get something to drink or take the dog for a walk.

Strategizing for next time

It’s important to observe your child during these events so you can pinpoint trouble spots and successes. Does your child hold it together when opening gifts in a small group but not in a large one? Is it better if your child gets a few presents at once, or one at a time?

After the gift exchange, talk over what each of you thought were the most successful parts. Did your child’s reaction to Grandpa’s gift make him smile? Did your child hide any disappointment when one present wasn’t what he expected? Praising these good moments can encourage repeat performances!

Key takeaways

  • Kids who have issues with impulsivity, distractibility, or social cues may find gift exchanges difficult.

  • Anticipating problems and preparing in advance can help minimize outbursts.

  • Observing your child during gift-giving this season can help you strategize for next year.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.