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When Christmas Giving Begets Tears and Tantrums

By Madeline Holler |

christmas tantrum, christmas eve

Christmas is kind of a beast. There’s all the planning and prep-work, the hiding unwrapped gifts and careful talk around Santa believers. But the pay-off is huge: another year wrapped in that cozy season of warm wishes, sentimental reminiscing, cheesy music you actually seek out, and, cutting to the chase here, presents! Who doesn’t like presents?

Ahhh, the presents. So fun to give, so fun to get and yet, fraught. Especially, when it comes to kids. Sometimes Santa doesn’t quite hit his mark and pre-tactful little ones are ready to let someone have it. John’s got a video of a doozy of a Christmas disappointment scene, but maybe you’ve seen something similar live.

What are parents to do?

Dr. Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Senior Psychologist at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, is offering a little pre-present insight. Just like it takes time to learn to walk and do long division, kids don’t come out of the womb with tact and grace. But there are ways to help them through the holidays, which can be wildly exciting and also profoundly disappointing.

Dolgan hits on some of the specific challenges for young ones in this interview he recently circulated:

What do 4-year-olds expect at Christmastime?
Kids are precise about what they want. It’s not a video game, it’s this particular video game. It’s not an action figure, it’s this action figure. They expect these precise things, especially if they wrote it down or visited Santa Claus. Children come to expect that all kids should have these toys, especially if the ads instruct them to, “Tell Mom and Dad” or “Make sure to mention this to Santa Claus.”

What should parents do when a child doesn’t get what he or she wanted?
The idea is that it’s not about getting, it’s about giving. Families can plan to volunteer at a shelter – or whatever it might be – to open up kids’ eyes to the fact that there are needy people. Parents can say: “This has been a tough year and many boys and girls have mommies and daddies who lost their jobs or are having a hard time staying in their houses. We can help Santa by doing some things that he would do because he’s having a very hard time providing all the food and clothes.”

If families are struggling financially, parents can also talk about “Santa dollars.” They can explain that Santa has just so many dollars to spread across many families, so he has to do different things this year, like giving food and clothing instead of toys. Everybody’s not going to get exactly what they want and it’s important not to be apologetic about it.

Is it good for kids to deal with disappointment?
Yes. These are the building blocks of personality. Dealing with disappointment means both managing expectations and identifying feelings. Unless you master disappointment or an upsetting event early, it will be much more difficult to deal with it later on. Children who grow up without any disappointment become entitled and narcissistic. And that’s very hard to treat. Those who are truly entitled think everything comes their way and nothing goes the other. They think they’re the center of the universe. When someone thinks that way, who can they share with?

Kids should use their words instead of “behaving out” what they feel. In our groups here at Children’s, we use a five-step-process called the Assertiveness Formula of Good Communication to help kids – even little kids – express their feelings. We say something like, “When ____ happened, I felt ____ because ____. I would like ____ and in return Mom and Dad get _____.” This teaches children the importance of compromise and thoughtfulness and the idea of alternatives.

What life lessons do kids learn at the holidays?
It’s an opportunity to know some myths; it’s an opportunity to work towards a belief system; it’s an opportunity to reconnect outside of school. Doing something together is very, very important. If parents reflect on the best part of the holidays, they can replicate that. And they remember the worst part of the holidays and learn not to bring that back either.

Are you anticipating drama under the tree this year? (I am.) How will you handle it? (Besides another cup of Glogg?)

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “When Christmas Giving Begets Tears and Tantrums

  1. April says:

    Been there done that. Last Christmas our 2 year olds came down to look at all their presents laid out just so by mommy and daddy. I was videotaping it. One son took one look at the giant blocks Daddy had arranged into a replica of the Parthenon and screamed and ran past it to hide saying “THEY ARE TOO BIG!” . Eventually they calmed down and liked them.

    Same thing this year. Same child comes in to see his new toys and lays down on the carpet and puts his face down.

    Oh well at least we can laugh at the videos later in life. It doesn’t bother me. I know it is all just too overwhelming for them first thing in the morning to see all these new toys and not know what to think. I did the same thing when I was a kid according to my mom. I walked in, looked at the presents and went back to bed without saying a word. I was 2.

    I always pick good toys though. I have no problem making sure we got the best and coolest toys every year. They still react weird though.

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