This week’s question is from Erica,
“I’m wondering how to deal with the inevitable disappointments that come from my kids when they get gifts sometimes. They are six and nine years old, and it seems like every time a fun event or season comes around, there ends up being disappointment, tears, and even temper flares. They get ideas in their head about how things will be and not everything works out that way. Or they have all kinds of things they want for gifts, but they don’t get all of them. We just went through this for Christmas, and now they have birthdays coming up in the next two months, and I don’t want a repeat. How can I help them handle the disappointment better?”
When a child seems “ungrateful” or “spoiled” after receiving a gift, it can be embarrassing for the parent. But what’s really going on when a child expresses disappointment when receiving gifts? It’s not that they are spoiled or that there is a lack of gratitude, but rather an issue of reacting to disappointment.
I’ll break down what your child might be going through and how to deal with it in the moment. And more importantly, how to preemptively ease any potential let-downs ahead of time and navigate through embarrassment or discomfort should a negative reaction occur from your child in a group or home setting.
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[00:01:55] Feelings of Disappointment Doesn’t Equal Spoiled
[00:04:00] Parenting Through a Child Expressing Disappointment
[00:07:56] Tips for Handling a Child’s Disappointment
[00:09:57] Questions to Preview with Your Child
[00:14:15] Problem-Solving Approach for When Disappointment Occurs
[00:19:12] When a Child has a Negative Reaction in the Moment
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to talk about disappointment for kids when they receive gifts, and how to prepare them for that, as well as how to handle the dysregulation that can happen. So the specific question today comes to us from Erica, who writes: “I’m wondering how to deal with the inevitable disappointments that come from my kids when they get gifts sometimes. They are six and nine years old, and it seems like every time a fun event or season comes around, there ends up being a disappointment, tears, and even temper flares. They get ideas in their head about how things will be and not everything works out that way. Or they have all kinds of things they want for gifts, but they don’t get all of them.
We just went through this for Christmas, and now they have birthdays coming up in the next two months, and I don’t want a repeat. How can I help them handle the disappointment better?” Great question, and as we have just come through the major holiday season, I’m sure many of you are cringing thinking about some of the things that maybe were said or done by your kids in relation to gifts. And it can be tough to deal with this. So this is a great question. What I love actually about how Erica framed the question is around this issue of handling disappointment. So this is key and a lot of parents don’t get that. So Erica, kudos to you for understanding that the real issue here is handling disappointment. Very often this issue gets framed as one of spoiledness or gratitude, kids not being grateful, those kinds of things. But actually, no.
The fundamental issue in these kinds of situations is kids feeling big amounts of disappointment and not having the skills or the ability to really handle that well. So that’s exactly how we want to frame this. It can be really tough for kids to deal with disappointment when they receive something that they don’t particularly like, or especially when they were expecting one thing and then something different happens. That can go for gifts, that can go for events and activities, and some of you are probably nodding thinking, “Yeah, that’s my kid. Most of the issues that we run into are when my child has an idea in their head about something, and then that’s not actually how it plays out in real life.” And when you think about it, we all struggle with this in some way, shape, or form, right? We all have images in our heads, stories we tell ourselves. the pictures that we create about how things are going to be, and then we experience disappointment, frustration whatever else when the reality of it doesn’t line up with the picture that we painted in our minds. And so that’s what’s really happening for kids around this issue of gifts.
And it can be things beyond gifts. But in this case around gifts that they receive, they have an idea about things that they want, about what they are going to get, they have hopes around that, they have desires around that. And then when the reality doesn’t match up, they feel really disappointed and they can struggle. This is especially the case for younger children who literally do not have the capabilities yet, from a developmental perspective and a brain perspective, to be able to handle those feelings of disappointment very well. And it also can be the case for older kids with neurodevelopmental or emotional kinds of challenges. So that kind of helps us put this in the right framework to start out with thinking about how we would handle this.
I want to speak to the parent side of this for a minute. As a parent myself who has been there, it can feel really embarrassing to have your child express — we will call them “not so pleasant” feelings about something that they have just opened, especially if it’s in a group kind of setting. So Erica, I feel for you, I can sort of picture what that might have been like at the family holiday gathering. And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that was not great. And I really would like to not live through that again at the family birthday party.” I get that, and I think so many of you listening get that too.
It can feel embarrassing for us when our child is expressing things, especially if the person giving the gift is in the room, that are not so pleasant. And we need to deal with our side of that as well and step back and examine for ourselves what’s going on for us there, and just acknowledge the embarrassment that we feel or the disappointment that we feel in our kids in that moment or the frustration that we maybe feel because we prepped grandma and grandpa for something that the child would like, and then they did something totally different, right?
There can be lots of uncomfortable emotions that we experience in those moments too. And so, part of this from a strategy standpoint is absolutely addressing the child side of it, but part of it is acknowledging and addressing our own side of it too, and keeping in mind that this is not about our kids being ungrateful or being intentionally rude. It’s really about them struggling to handle big uncomfortable feelings. And that we may also in those moments struggle to manage our big uncomfortable feelings. And just being aware of that allows us to have empathy for ourselves, for our kids, and that goes a long way.
So in the big picture, then, from a strategy standpoint, we can recognize that kids just aren’t that great at managing big uncomfortable feelings yet, it’s not personal, it’s not intentional, it’s just a function of the developmental process, right? That as they go through childhood, or if you have a child with developmental delays, neurodevelopmental issues, this may be as they go through their adolescence and even their early adulthood, they are going to get better at having these kinds of big uncomfortable feelings and being able to regulate themselves around those feelings.
So if you think about for yourself, now, the last time you were in a situation where someone gave you a gift, and you opened it, especially if you were expecting it to be one thing, and it turned out to be their thing, or you just felt a tremendous amount of disappointment around what that gift was, you probably managed that in a fairly regulated way. You have mastered the ability at your stage in your developmental process of feeling that disappointment inside, but communicating and expressing and handling yourself in a way that feels better to you, that doesn’t blow up, that doesn’t burst into tears, that doesn’t berate the other person.
We have a way of regulating that, but that’s us as adults now. And we have to understand that we weren’t very good at that when we were kids, either. So the filter in our brains that allows us to have thoughts and feelings inside of ourselves, but not necessarily express them, or to express them in a more measured, thoughtful kind of way, that filter is very much developing, even though the young adult years. So the reason why I start here in terms of strategies is we have to recognize developmentally where kids are, and make sure that we are not expecting them to be able to handle this in a way that they truly aren’t able to yet. They get better at this as they go along.
So here are some specific tips that you may find helpful. We want to focus on the proactive side of this to help develop some skills, to help prime their thinking before they are in this situation. So my first suggestion is to talk to your kids before gift opening opportunities or events so that you can help preview and prepare them for the feelings that they might be having and how they could handle those feelings. If you’ve listened to lots of these episodes, you’ve heard me talk before about this strategy of previewing and reviewing: Previewing things, priming the pump, helping kids think through things in advance, so that when it happens, or if it happens, they are better prepared. And then reviewing on the other end is helpful, too. But here, we are talking about this previewing. When we preview like this and help kids do some pre-thinking about “Gosh, what happened at the last birthday party? What were some feelings that you had? Or What are you expecting at your birthday this year? And what feelings might you have?”
And when we talk through those things ahead of time, we are really inoculating our kids against the sudden unanticipated discomforts that they might have, because for any of us when we are caught off guard, and we suddenly experience this rush of uncomfortable feelings, we tend not to regulate ourselves as well around that. When we can be prepared and have some anticipation of it, it kind of takes the power out of those big intense feelings and allows us to work through them better at the moment. So doing this previewing: What might this be like? Let’s anticipate feelings that might come up. Let’s talk through how we might handle it. It helps them be better prepared so that if those things happen, it’s less of an intense experience for them in the moment.
Here are some questions, the types of questions that can help sort of get your child thinking about this. One question would be “What do you think it will feel like if you don’t get the video game you asked for?” Or whatever that you asked for. So here you’re getting them thinking about “If that happened if I didn’t get that thing, how would that feel?” And you’re starting to have them anticipate that and put some language to it. Putting language, putting words to emotional experiences is a very important and powerful strategy for helping us process and stay regulated in those experiences.
So putting some words to it, how do you think that will feel? Now obviously the way we ask these questions and sort of the back and forth and how detailed we get is going to depend on the age and developmental level of the child. But you can ask even younger kids this, “You really want this game or Lego set or toy. How do you think you will feel if you don’t get that?” And some of you might be thinking, “Well, I’ve tried that before.” Or “If I ask that question, my child is just going to blow up and get upset even thinking about the question.” Well, that’s good information to have, right? That shows you that even thinking about having this feeling of disappointment is really distressing and overwhelming for them.
All the more reason to be practicing with this ahead of time, to be taking the power out of that by acclimating to these feelings, by prepping, by practicing, by previewing, so that they aren’t so overwhelmed even thinking about the fact that this might happen. So that’s one question. “What might it feel like if you don’t get X, Y, or Z thing?” Another type of question to open up conversation about this: “Have you ever felt grateful that somebody gave you a gift, but also disappointed that it wasn’t something you wanted?”
Now, this is not a question for a young child, because young kids, earlier than elementary age, they really don’t yet have the ability to hold these very different feelings at once or to understand that, but when they start getting into the early elementary years, and certainly by the later elementary years and beyond, this is something that they are becoming more able to do, to hold two really different emotions and ideas in their mind at the same time and consider them. So “Have you ever felt grateful that somebody gave you something, but also disappointed that it wasn’t what you wanted?” This opens up some thinking around the complexities and the nuances of this, right? Oh, “You love your grandma or Aunt Sally. But yeah, last year they gave you this thing. And ah, that’s hard, because you really love them and you really appreciate that they got you something, but oh, it really wasn’t what you wanted, and you felt so disappointed.” And so helping them just navigate and understand that that’s totally normal to have both of those feelings, and that you can feel disappointed about something, and it doesn’t have any bearing on how you feel about the other person.
So these are important concepts for kids to start to wrestle with and understand. Another question to prime the pump and do some previewing, and this would particularly be the case if it’s going to be a gift opening situation, maybe where multiple people are opening gifts, maybe like a family holiday party or something like that. So you could ask: |I wonder how you might feel if your cousin gets something you really wanted. What do you think you would do? How do you think that would feel? What do you think would happen if they got the thing you really wanted, and you got something that you really didn’t want?” Again, these types of questions just get kids thinking and allow you to help guide them with not only acknowledging and accepting these very normal feelings that they are having in response to these events but also sort of guiding them to think through how they can handle those things. So these are just some examples of questions that you could ask to sort of get these conversations started.
And then you want to move into a problem-solving type of approach with your kids around this. So you can talk through or you can role-play different ways of responding so that they can practice ahead of time. This is really, really important. If you have a child who tends to really struggle with impulsivity, who struggles at the moment to stop, to pause, to consider things before responding, you’re going to want to do a lot of role-playing and walking through a lot of practice, so that they are really building the muscles and sort of having this strategy in their mind that they can use then, if and when these things happen. With kids who don’t tend towards those types of issues, you can probably talk through role-playing a couple of different times, and that will be good, but some kids need a lot of practice with this.
And so that thinking about, “Well, gosh, what can we do? Let’s make a list of all the different ways we could respond. Okay, now let’s go through and think about what are the ways that are going to end up feeling better to us afterward? Some of these things “Oh, yeah. Well, I could throw myself down on the floor and scream and cry and whatever. I could do that, but that’s probably not going to feel very good to me after the fact, I’m going to wish I hadn’t done that. So let’s take that one off the list.” And so you brainstorm what are all the possible ways that you could respond or your child could respond. And then you say, “Okay, what are the ones here that feel best? What are the ones that we actually want to see ourselves doing or that we want to implement if these things happen?” And then you practice with those, and you can actually role-play those.
I encourage parents to take the role of the kids sometimes and say, “Okay, now we are going to practice, you’re going to be grandma”, or “You’re going to be me, and I’m going to pretend to be you, and we are going to walk through this.” And so you can practice and role-play in lots of different ways. You can give your child some scripts and some one-liners that they can use as well. Sometimes just giving kids words that they can use in that moment is really helpful to them so that they don’t have to try to come up with something on the spot. So giving them some things that they can use, and saying to them “You may feel really disappointed, and you could still say thank you for thinking of me, thank you for the present”, something like that, just to give them some words that they can use. So those are some of the proactive strategies, and I’ve done that a lot with my own kids, with kids in the clinic. That type of approach is really what builds the skills for this along with just the course of regular development that happens as kids’ frontal lobes get stronger, as those executive functions that allow them to better regulate their emotions, as those get stronger, kids get better with this.
Now, at the moment, if your child has a negative reaction during the gift opening, it’s important for you to manage yourself around that. So just like we talked about with so many other things, you want to focus on keeping yourself calm. And the best way to do that is to be proactive with yourself about previewing how this might go. You know your kids, you know how gift openings have gone. Inoculate yourself, walk through it in your head beforehand, what’s likely to happen? How am I going to respond? And that will help you be more grounded and less caught up in the distressing emotions if and when it actually happens.
So keep yourself calm, and you can just offer support to your child, offer a hug if that’s something helpful to them, a comment like, “I know it’s really hard when you expected one thing and you got another”, and you just have some of those words ready for yourself of how you’re going to handle it. You don’t need to overdo it and overcompensate and try to get them to feel better or okay in the moment. That’s not your job either, and actually, that’s not helpful. It’s okay for kids to feel disappointed. These things happen in life. They are normal things that come up, and we want our kids to be resilient and to be able to handle them. So in those moments, it’s not helpful for you to say, “Oh, I know you’re so upset, oh, it’s going to be okay, we will stop and get that thing on the way home”, or the other extreme, “You need to knock it off right now. It’s not okay. You are acting ungrateful, you’re making grandma upset, you need to stop.”
That’s also not helpful. So if they have an uncomfortable reaction, manage your own embarrassment, your own frustration, your own feelings, and just offer some gentle support to them. “I know this is tough, and it’ll be okay” type of thing. The other piece during and then afterward for yourself, because kids move on from this stuff, but we tend to hold on to it, is to try not to get caught up in a shame spiral or some sort of self-critical mode about your parenting, about what everybody else is thinking of you, about how awful your kids are. That’s easy for us to get into also, and sometimes we feel like we need to explain a whole lot to the other people or we need to manage the gift giver’s uncomfortable feelings or whatever it might be. And so if you feel like you need to say something to the adult or the person who gave the gift, you can just say “Yeah, he’s still learning how to handle disappointment.” Or “He’s still working on managing the feelings that he has”, and you can just leave it there. You don’t need to give whole long drawn-out explanations. You don’t need to take responsibility for actually how anyone is feeling in the situation.
Just work on managing yourself and reminding yourself that this is something that happens with kids, these are normal experiences. They can be frustrating, they can be embarrassing, but you can move through them, move on, your kid will be okay, you’ll be okay, grandma will be okay. Then you keep practicing with it.
So I hope this gives you a helpful framework for thinking about this. I hope that for Erica and any of the rest of you who are trying to help your kids handle big feelings like disappointment, especially around gift-giving occasions, I hope you have some tools to do that. Remember, if you have questions you would like to hear answered on a future episode, email it to support at drbeurkens.com. Thank you, as always, for listening, and I’ll catch you back here next time.