Five Hints for Avoiding a Gift Fiasco

Christmas is coming and gifts will be exchanged. Even the healthiest, happiest kids have difficulty navigating how to receive and give thanks appropriately, and it can be a huge challenge for our kids who came to us from “hard places”.

How do we teach children to receive a gift with grace and gratitude? It may take years, but we want them to grow in their ability to do this well.  These five hints will help them along the way, and make Christmas day more pleasant for everyone.

1. Let your child know what to expect.

One of our daughters lived in an orphanage where she watched many Disney movies – her dreams of a mountain of shiny, wrapped gifts heaped under the Christmas tree came from Hollywood, not reality. We’ve become much more structured in gift giving in order to help our children have realistic expectations of what will happen Christmas morning. We explain that they will each receive a book and two other gifts. Whatever your plan is, be sure to repeat it many times, especially the first few years.

2. Practice opening gifts.

Explain that learning how to receive a gift makes Christmas more fun. “Wrap” a couple of things in kitchen towels and let her practice unwrapping.  Then have your children sit in a circle, each with a “gift” in front of them.  Let them unwrap the gifts one at a time, taking a moment to admire each person’s gift.  You can make this very silly and have fun with it.

3. Rehearse saying “thank you”.

Give your child something and have her practice saying two nice things.  One can be “thank you” and the other should be something about the gift. Explain that you understand that she may not love the gift, and it is okay to think it in her mind, but it’s not okay to say it in that moment, when her sister who lovingly picked it out is sitting next to her. You will be happy to talk with her about it privately about it later.

Rehearsing can be combined with practicing opening gifts, but it can also be done throughout the day.  When you make her a snack, she can say, “Thank you.  I like apples cut in slices.”  Be sure to let her give you things too – especially silly things that require creativity for a thankful response, “Why thank you Bee, I just love this empty yogurt container. It will look lovely on my dresser”  My kids love it when I am dramatic and silly.

4. Take a break.

Let her know that  you understand Christmas can be hard and it’s okay to take a break. If it’s too difficult to watch everyone else opening gifts, or if being in the room with the whole family is just too much, she can step out.  She can get a drink of water, eat a snack, or walk to her room and spend a few minutes breathing deeply.

5.  Extend Compassion and Lend Confidence

We need to be mindful of the challenge receiving gifts may be for our children from “hard places”.  Think of the hundreds of times we handed something to one of our other little ones and said, “Thank you!” Over time they began to mimic us by saying, “Dee-doo!” or something similar.  Through hundreds of exchanges, they learned this response, so as toddlers and preschoolers, they already had some understanding of gratitude and knew how to say “Thank you”.  They also learned the joy of giving something and hearing others say “Thank you” to them.

Our children who lived in deprivation did not have that luxury; they needed many things and never received them.  Some of us have children who spent years in orphanages where there was never enough to go around; the older and stronger you were, the more you got.  There was no joy in giving or sharing, there was only grasping and then protecting what you had.

We need to really consider why giving and receiving gifts may be difficult for our children and be mindful of the challenge. We can let them know that we understand it is hard for them and we want to help them so they can enjoy Christmas more.  We should lend them our confidence that they can learn how to do this and we will be with them, helping them along the way.

Special thanks to my dear friend, Emily Barr, who gave me permission to use her thoughts as a starting place for this post.

Question: Does your child struggle with receiving gifts?  What have you found to be helpful?

[This post was originally published in anticipation of Christmas 2012. Here it is, Christmas Eve, and I think we need to do some practicing today. I hope you find it helpful too.]


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Heidi
    December 24, 2013

    I just did Christmas with my 3 yesterday – they all require such different things! The youngest has been wound up tight after multiple visits with incarcerated dad and I can see his anxiety taking over in the form of endless energy. The middle is easily overwhelmed…with gifts (though it's his love language), with people, the sights, the sounds, and the loss of Christmas' before. The thoughts of incarcerated dad and mom with severed rights…too much. He is introverted and I can see the stress written on his face. The oldest defaults to a strong momma role every time, but I can see her innocence in the way she smiles in her picture with Santa (she still believes – and I let her indulge in the mystery and wonder of it all).

    So many needs and such a beautiful post! Merry Christmas to you all! <3

  2. Jennifer
    December 24, 2013

    Thank you! I need those lessons for tonight.

  3. Laine
    December 24, 2013

    Wonderful! Thank you for putting these ideas together and sharing. Merry Christmas!

  4. Dannette
    December 24, 2013

    We have learned to keep it simple too! We have fostered for many years and learned that simple is better for kids coming from a life of trauma. We settled on three gifts too as being enough and doable for the kids. I love the routine we have established and it keeps everyone a bit more level – if level is possible!

  5. Elizabeth
    December 28, 2013

    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing.


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