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Looking beyond gifts: Helping your child manage expectations during the holidays

By Susan Damico – Assistant Director of the Devereux Center for Resilient Children  

For many, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year, but all the excitement, stimulation and expectation can take a toll on children and their parents.  

Taking a few moments each day to teach our children about generosity, gratitude and resilience may help prevent any disruption or letdown that can wreak havoc during what should be a fun and joyous time for families. 

A primary source of happiness and stress during the holidays is exchanging gifts with loved ones, especially children. All parents want to see their child’s face light up when opening presents but, often, it can feel like gifts become the star of the show, instead of playing a supporting role. One way to make sure presents don’t steal the spotlight is to help your child focus on generosity and gratitude. A few tips include: 

  • Making time to be thankful: Teaching children to cherish what they already have will help them gain strength and happiness from their everyday surroundings. In addition to writing a letter to Santa, ask your child to write down what they are thankful for this year (and every year). 
  • Setting limits and managing expectations: Remind your children that they may not always get everything that they want – and that’s okay. If your child becomes upset, be patient. Learning to cope with disappointment takes time.  
  • Being a role model: Children learn through our example, so it is important to be a model of gratitude and generosity when it comes to gifts and acts of kindness. When your children demonstrate healthy social and emotional behaviors, encourage and reward them through positive reinforcement. Thank a child for cleaning up after dinner, for patiently listening to a family member’s story without interrupting or for completing a chore without being asked. 
  • Giving back: It is never too late to start thinking about your family’s involvement in charity. Encourage your children to give back by: 1) donating toys and books they no longer use, or clothes they have grown out of, and 2) purchasing a new gift for a family in need. When it comes to toys and books, ask your child to pick out items they are comfortable giving away; explain how sharing will make another child happy. And remember that younger children may have a hard time giving up toys, so be patient and remember that no act of kindness is too small! 
  • Talking about good intentions: Sometimes, a child may not love a gift he or she receives from a family member (hey, it happens, right?). This is an excellent, teachable moment to talk about the intention behind gifts. For example, “Grandma gave you that teddy bear because she loves you and thought it was something you would like to play with when she’s not with you.”  

Building resilience to reduce stress

During the holiday season, it’s also important to be mindful of other stress factors that could affect your child. If you notice unusual or out-of-character behaviors, this could simply be the result of overstimulation from events, activities and school obligations.  

When planning parties, family gatherings and school recitals, schedule down time to be together and reflect. Use this time to help your child relax and decompress: practice self-calming techniques like listening to soothing music, reading a book or practicing deep breathing – and remember to laugh.  

Children who are relaxed and emotionally centered have more control over their behaviors. Taking time this hectic holiday season to help your children develop social and emotional skills will enable them to feel good about themselves, feel connected to others, believe their actions can make a positive difference and, ultimately, are more likely to be happy.    

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