Getting presents is usually a highlight of the holiday season. But for some kids with learning and attention issues, 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 people he may not know well. Plus, he’s got 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 your child to keep his 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 attention issues 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 he arrives at his grandma’s house for Christmas, your child 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: Your child starts handing out all his gifts to his cousins the minute they each arrive. But before they can open them your child blurts out the contents of each gift, spoiling the surprise.
The issue: Intense focus, rigidity or inflexibility
The situation: Upon opening the tablet computer his godparents gave him, your child 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 your child opens is the video game he wanted. He gets so excited that he refuses to open any other gifts from his relatives until he can play the new game.
The issue: Extreme sensitivity
The situation: All the adults noisily ooh and aah over the photo album your child 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: Your child insists 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 with your child in advance on a look, word or gesture you can use on the spot to help him recognize and stop his behavior.
If he 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 he 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 he hold it together when he opens gifts in a small group but not in a large one? Is it better if he 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 make his grandpa smile when he opened the gift he brought? Did he hide his disappointment when the present you gave him wasn’t what he expected? Praising these good moments can encourage repeat performances!
Take a look at more ways to avoid outbursts over gifts. You can also use Parenting Coach, where you’ll find practical tips to help your child improve how he interacts with adults, handles frustration and more.