Gifting Holidays: Overcoming Challenges and Promoting Enjoyment
Birthdays, holidays and other special occasions (e.g., graduations, weddings) are commonly associated with gifts. Giving and receiving gifts during these celebrations can be exciting and enjoyable, but may also be quite challenging for children with special needs and their families. In fact, it is not uncommon for children to “meltdown” during these occasions.
There are a variety of reasons gifting occasions may be difficult. First, exchanging gifts doesn’t happen on a regular basis, and may occur in a disorderly fashion, which may be confusing or stressful for some children. Gifting can feel chaotic or overwhelming if occasions are associated with a great deal of noise and excitement or children or relatives crowded around. Second, the child with special needs may not be the focus of attention or recipient of gifts at all occasions or at all times during the events, making the child feel left out. It is difficult to watch someone else receive a gift if you are not receiving one. Finally, some children do not like the social demands that accompany gifts, especially when excited gift-givers expect immediate feedback on and use of the gifts they gave. We want children to be able to participate fully and enjoy gatherings that involve exchanging gifts. In this article, we offer some strategies to make these occasions better for children and their families.
Prepare Your Child for Occasions
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of success. You can prepare children for gifting holidays. You can place events on a calendar and share information regarding what to expect through
social stories (see sidebar), as well as pictures of previous occasions or books or movies about particular holidays. You can contact the host, explaining that you want your child to participate successfully, and ask for specific information about the event:
- How many people will be in attendance – will they be crowded into one area?
- Could you describe the physical setting and where gifts will be exchanged?
- Do you have a plan for the overall schedule, including when gifts will be exchanged?
- Are you planning any special activities (e.g., involving gifts/prizes/giving or receiving)?
- Will the attendees need anything in particular… and will there be any parting gifts?
If your child will be giving someone else a gift, engage them in planning, purchasing, and wrapping the items, talking with your child about what the person might appreciate and possible reactions to expect. If you anticipate your child having difficulty with giving, consider purchasing an item that your child does not find as appealing (making it easier to give away).
Contain the Chaos during Gifting
In addition to these preparations, you can make adjustments to the event itself to increase the likelihood of its success. This starts with establishing reasonable goals regarding how long to stay, ranging from dropping by to staying the entire time – and adjusting this depending on how your child is doing that day. It also depends on what you learned about the party schedule, possibly avoiding the most difficult times. If your child will be the recipient, you may also want to limit how many gifts to open during the event. At some parties, parents opt to delay opening of gifts for a later time, maybe when only close family is left or even to spread over multiple days. You may want to ask attendees to only bring one gift to make it less overwhelming.
You can also structure the gift exchange to reduce the chaos. This may involve opening only one gift at-a-time and/or assigning roles to your child and others such as handing out gifts or collecting wrapping. If the gift exchange is likely to take some time, give your child something to keep him or her busy during exchange if that will help. Whenever possible, it is helpful to clarify these expectations and routines with attendees. If things go awry, plan an exit strategy.
Teach Generosity and Appreciation
Giving and accepting gifts are skills, and skills are best practiced during less stressful times. It may therefore be helpful to practice what to say and do apart from the gift-giving occasion. You can model these skills as you provide reminders (e.g., “look at the gift and person, hand it to the person/accept it by taking the gift, say thank you – (even if you do not like it)/your welcome, smile or clap if
others are doing so”. Part of this instruction may be helping the child to put gifts aside and/or ask permission to examine someone else’s gifts.
Thanking people for their generosity after the event is also important. You may need to prompt your child to thank the host upon leaving and to follow up. A nice way to teach appreciation is to have your child send thank you cards. Depending on your child’s capability,you can provide fill-in-the blank cards or pictures of the gifts with “thank you” stamps.
Reward Child’s Positive Behavior
As your child is learning these skills, it may be helpful to provide additional reinforcement. This may be in the form of praise for generosity and appreciation or special activities afterward (e.g., visit to the pet shop or park on the way home). If your child does not receive anything during the event, you may want to consider providing a small | parting gift (e.g., playdoh, action figure, balloon from party) yourself as a reward for positive behavior.
For some children, being able to leave a confusing or chaotic environment may be a relief. If so,you can prompt them to ask or signal that they want to leave or simply take a break (e.g., by taking a quick walk in the backyard) when you know they have participated as well as they can and had enough, but before they have misbehaved. This will reward their participation, as well as appropriate communication.
If you can predict it, you can prevent it. Making occasions enjoyable for everyone involved and teaching children generosity and tolerance is possible.
Social Story for Gifting Holidays:
“Tomorrow we will be going to Steven’s birthday party. There will be lots of kids and family members there. Everyone will be focusing on Steven and many people will bring gifts. Steven may decide to open gifts during the party. This could be hard. You have a special gift for Steven that we believe he will like. We will ask that he open your gift first. When he does, you will need to wait patiently and tell him ‘you’re welcome’ if he says thank you. If you decide you need a break after he opens your gift, you may go to the backyard for a few minutes and then wait away from the group until the gifts have all been opened. Luckily, Steven’s mother will be providing cake and parting gifts as we leave. These will be nice treats for you.”
FREE DOWNLOAD: PSN Holiday Gift Lists
- 100 + “Mom Approved” Gifts for Kids with Special Needs
- 18 “Mom Approved” Gifts for Kids/Teens with Special Needs
- Holiday Gift Guide: Give Gifts That Fuel Creativity, Create Music and Challenge Your Child to Learn
- Special Resources: This Season Give the Gift of Knowledge
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This post originally appeared on our November/December 2015 Magazine