How To Manage Christmas Gift Tantrums

Tantrums over Christmas presents?

So you’re busy creating the perfect fairy tale Christmas for your children. You want to make memories for them that will last forever. The presents are wrapped and the turkey is in the oven. Your camera is ready to take photographs of your children’s delighted faces as they unwrap their gifts.

And then suddenly, the fairy tale scene crumbles. Your 4-year-old is unimpressed with their box of crafting materials and starts crying, saying they wanted a Hatchimal. Or your 2-year-old toddles over and starts investigating her big sister’s present, which ends in a tussling match as the new gift is destroyed. Tantrums!

With children, there may be many times when our dreams of perfection don’t turn out to be reality. We never know when unexpected emotions in the form of tantrums are going to throw everyone off kilter and ruin these special occasions.

However, an understanding of how children’s emotions works can help us minimize outbursts, and ride through the storms if they do occur. 

Parenting’s best kept secret!

In my book, Tears Heal, I explain ‘parenting’s best kept secret,’ that crying is actually a healing process for children, a natural way to help recover from stress and upset. Writers and thinkers have known this for millennia, but this intuitive knowledge of having a ‘good cry’ doesn’t always translate into acceptance of our children’s emotions. When we are on automatic pilot, we tend to do everything we can to distract or fix our children’s emotions, including stopping the tantrums, rather than listen and allow our kids to express emotion.

The trouble with this approach is that then children spend a lot of their lives on the verge of tantrums, and the smallest disappointment, transition or upset can set them off. This is what psychologist Aletha Solter coined ‘the broken cookie phenomenon,’ that children pin big upsets, onto tiny events. Your child uses a trigger in the moment to release a backlog of stress and upset.

Instead of trying to distract or fix our children’s emotions, we can take a listening approach. We can offer hugs, and empathy, rather than trying to reason with them or talk them out of an upset. This allows children to get all their upset out in one go, return to their natural, joyful self, and to become more flexible.

One mum I know tried this listening approach when she went shopping with her daughter to buy a present for her friend. This mum had noticed that her daughter wasn’t feeling good. She’d been whiney for a while and the mother sensed that there were some emotions brewing. When the girl asked for a doll, the mum said no and the daughter ended up running away with the doll. The mum chased after her, and gently connected with her. She put her hand on the doll and told her she needed to put it back. The girl cried for a while, and then she suddenly stopped and said: “Okay. I’ll put it back if you buy it for me for Christmas.’’ After that she was really happy and relaxed.

The goods on getting ‘the goods’

During the festive season emotions tend to build up. We are busy shopping and wrapping, and don’t always have the time or patience to give children the deep sense of connection they need.

Christmas can also be fraught with emotions because we live in a culture that encourages us to think that if we purchase certain things we will be happy. Our children can become victims of advertising, and may express strong demands for what they want for Christmas.

But deep down, beneath those wants and disappoints, the gift that our children want most is connection. This Christmas, as well as focusing on the presents, spend time being present with your children. Schedule short special times – one-on-one time with each of your children doing something that they love, so they get to soak up a warm connection with you.

If they get upset over little or big things, then take the time to listen. Doing this in advance of the big day, can mean they are light and free of upset so their emotions won’t get in the way of enjoyment.

When our child has tantrums, or is acting ‘spoilt, or ‘entitled’ about the presents they want or disappointment they feel, remember that deep down what they are really craving is this most precious of gifts; time with you and listening.

7 thoughts on “How To Manage Christmas Gift Tantrums”

  1. So true, it even applies to us grown-ups. We are so busy socializing, entertaining, cooking, serving, etc. that we lose touch with ourselves and get cranky. I know I like my me-time when we finally get home or the guests have left!!

    1. I know! I can go completely bonkers and snap at everyone if I’m in the middle of holiday meal prep. Holy cow! Emotions are hard for adults, and then we freak out on our kids when they snap! Oy the hypocrisy. ha ha

  2. I dont know whats worse. Doing the christmas shopping or putting your received gift in the basement because you hate it. I have a box full of “crap” I received as gift and Ive always wished that these gift could turn into quality time with families and friends.

  3. I left this comment on Ariane’s site but I’d love to hear your/Kate’s take as well– “Can you also write about how it’s not just kids that feel overwhelmed at this time of year? The sights/sounds/pressures of the season are affecting me too. It gets to be too much! Knowing our own limits is good to keep our own emotions in check.”

    1. Very good suggestion, Stacy. I think you’re right, I need to write some about this. It is overwhelming for everyone, or can be. The emotional rollercoaster can fly off the tracks pretty quickly with all this “good cheer!”

  4. Great advice, Kate. What I find hard at Christmas is getting extended family to scale down their presents to the children. No matter how often I try to make this point, it is ignored and they insist on going big. This, and all the free catalogues of toys handed out to families by the big stores have made Christmas for my kids much too focused on presents. If I could skip this whole side of it I would. My 10-year-old told me the other day she thinks parents shouldn’t introduce the Santa fairytale to their children. She now sees her little sister, still a believer, being taken in, and doesn’t like the pretence of it all.

  5. This time of year there is so much expectation on children to behave well and I think parents begin to feel really judged and observed creating even more stress for the whole family. These suggestions are so helpful – children really need someone willing to slow down and be present with them when emotions run high. Making peace with the idea that children at times need to cry and release feelings can make tantrum management simply turn into loving guidance. Thank you for these beautiful suggestions. I will be sharing this!

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