Expectations for the Holidays

Q: Everywhere I look there seems to be something about the holidays and my daughter (age 7) has definitely noticed. She has already given us her wish list for Christmas and from the way she acts, it is clear she expects to get everything on her list. We know she is going to have a hard time when she realizes she did not get everything she wanted. Any suggestions on how to deal with the inevitable disappointment and possible tantrum that will result?

A: First off, you are not alone! Many parents are in the same boat. As you noted, there is mention of the holidays everywhere we look and stores never fail to highlight the gift giving aspect. This unfortunately can overshadow the true meaning of the holidays and place greater emphasis on presents. While having ways to manage disappointment on the day children are opening presents is important, we encourage parents this year to initiate the coping process before that. Start by discussing gratitude and giving, but without presents all around tempting all focus to be on wondering what could be under the shiny wrapping paper. One way to achieve this is by modeling the desired behavior. From very early on, children turn to their parents for clues on how to respond in situations. Be aware of how you are expressing gratitude. If a co-worker gives you the same gift again this year before heading off for her vacation to Hawaii, do you verbalize disappointment over dinner by saying to your family that your co-worker is cheap and not creative with gift giving, but spends so much money on vacations? Or do you express gratitude for her thinking about you this holiday season and remembering to bring in your gift before she left the office for the next two weeks? Try on a daily basis to express your gratitude about even simple things like a great dinner or no traffic on your drive home from work. Your child will notice!

In addition, consider taking time to discuss the true meaning of the holiday(s) being celebrated. Emphasize the holidays are not just about receiving, but they are also a time for us to reflect on what we already have and finding ways to give. Giving back to the community can be a great way to demonstrate this and can be done in many different ways. Find a way to give back that works for you whether it be volunteering at a soup kitchen, arranging a toy drive, or dropping off items at a food bank.

Writing thank you notes as part of the routine when gifts are involved is another option. This can be tedious, but it sends children the message they are not entitled to presents. Instead, the gift was a thoughtful and kind gesture. For little ones, encourage them to draw a picture in the card expressing their gratitude or have them tell you their message and you can write it. As children get older and have stronger writing skills, the torch can be passed to them and they can complete their own thank you cards.

Now for the disappointment that might ensue the day of. It can be mortifying to be amongst others when you hear your child loudly voice their discontentment. Create a plan beforehand as to how you plan to handle this situation. This plan should include staying calm and not shaming your child. Being shamed does not help children learn the points mentioned above, but it will definitely make them feel poorly about themselves and further exacerbate the situation. Try finding a private place where you can communicate one-on-one about their disappointment, but during this conversation, also sharing about what it was like for you when they reacted negatively. If the above suggestions were already implemented, you can always re-iterate what was discussed regarding what the holidays are really about. Most importantly, provide them the opportunity for a “do over.” A “do over” allows both of you to have a positive experience, so the remainder of the day is not clouded.