There's a moment in A Christmas Story that many kids can relate to: After tearing open all his gifts, young Ralphie realizes that the one thing he's been hinting about, asking Santa for, and writing essays on (a C+?!) — that Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun — isn't there. He tries to be a good sport about it, but his crestfallen face says it all. As parents, we hope to avoid moments like this, but sometimes kids are disappointed at the holidays despite our best efforts. How do we deal with it, and more importantly, how do we help our kids cope?
The best strategy for avoiding those Ralphie moments is to teach appreciation and empathy from a young age, explains renowned educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ed.D. "Appreciation is a skill that can be taught," she tells Romper. "Parents who raise appreciative kids don't do so by accident. They set out to raise a child with gratitude, and they usually succeed."
Borba, the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (available on Amazon), adds that the earlier in the season you can start practicing holiday gratitude, the better. Simply prompting a child, "What do you say?" after they open Grandma's present won't do it, particularly if Grandma gave them a sweater instead of the toy they were hoping for.
The following smart strategies will not only help curb disappointment, but will also help your child develop an appreciative spirit all year long, which is the greatest gift they could ever receive.
1. Dial Down The Gift Talk
"We're a consumer-driven culture that talks, talks, talks about gifts, gifts, gifts!" says Borba. "The onslaught of commercials is one reason, but we also play a part in building up kids' hopes and dreams for a packed Christmas morning." Sure, it's fine to ask your children once or twice what they'd like Santa to bring, but don't make it a daily conversation. Instead, get them psyched about other parts of the holiday: "I can't wait to see the cousins, can you?" or "Let's go for a drive to look at all the pretty lights."
2. Let Kids Know What To Expect
Is the gift pile this year going to be smaller for financial reasons? Believe it or not, the kids will be just fine with that —if they know about it well ahead of time, says Borba. "The problem is throwing out 'Santa won't be bringing as many presents this year' the night before he arrives." So starting now, talk to your children about what they can expect to see when the time comes.
You can also use the "index card" strategy, Borba suggests: Give each of your children an index card on which to write the one or two presents they really really want, and explain that Santa (or you) will try hard to bring them, along with a couple of other smaller gifts.
3. Teach Gratitude Through Practice
More important than getting presents is understanding the thought that goes into them, says Borba. "A hard lesson for kids is that they’re thanking the person not for the gift but the thoughtfulness behind it," she says. "Keep reinforcing the thought that went into the deed. Practice with your child before the holiday or other gift occasion, to help him learn why and how to be appreciative. 'Sally thought a lot about what to give you this year.' 'Josh went to five stores to find what would make you happiest.' ”
Have your child rehearse their thank-yous aloud at least a week or two before the big day. You can even use a doll or teddy bear to stand in for Nana or Uncle Steve.
4. Walk The Walk Yourself
As we all know, kids learn a lot from us. When you model appreciation yourself, your little ones get the message. So make sure they hear you saying "thank you" as often as possible, and not just at gift-giving time. "Tell your kids that you appreciate them, too," suggests Borba. It also helps to explain the reason behind your gratitude: "Thank you for putting the plates in the dishwasher. That saved me a lot of time, and I appreciate it."
5. Have Them Be Givers, Too
As the saying goes, it's better to give than to receive. When you encourage your kids to buy or make gifts for loved ones, it teaches them the fun of anticipating someone else's reaction. And when they see the delight on the recipients' faces, they'll be inspired to be thankful for the things they get themselves.
6. Teach Coping Strategies Ahead Of Time
What if, despite all your preparation, your kids still end up less than thrilled with their holiday loot? Practicing beforehand is still the way to go, advises Borba. "Each child manages upset feelings differently," she explains. "The ultimate parent task is to find out what works for each offspring — and then have them practice it a zillion times before they open that present." Some of Borba's suggestions for avoiding a disappointment meltdown: taking a deep breath; counting to 100; trying self-talk ("I'm okay" or "I can be calm"); or simply leaving the room and finding a quiet space to decompress.
7. Offer Empathy, Not More Stuff
When your child feels let down because they didn't get something they were hoping for, the temptation is to run out and buy the Hatchimal or Fingerling or whatever wasn't under the tree. But children who aren't allowed to feel little disappointments will grow up not knowing how to handle the big ones, cautioned MoneyCrashers. Instead, offer comfort and empathy ("You're disappointed because you were hoping for that big LEGO set"), and explain that the people who gave the gifts did their best to choose nice ones. Then encourage your child: "What do you think you could do to help yourself feel better?" Being an active part of their own solutions helps children become more resilient and better able to handle whatever setbacks come along... even that bunny suit from Aunt Clara.
After experiencing a traumatic c-section, this mother sought out a doula to support her through her second child’s delivery. Watch as that doula helps this mom reclaim the birth she felt robbed of with her first child, in Episode Three of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes, launching Mondays in December.