Q: When my son opens Christmas presents from friends and family he does not act excited, even if it’s something he likes. It’s as if his facial expression does not match what I know he is thinking. It also makes the person giving the gift feel bad—like my son doesn’t like what he received. Is this lack of response anything to be concerned about? And how do I explain this to my family and friends?
TARA: Opening presents is wrapped in huge expectations. When adults give children presents, they are looking forward to the child’s positive reaction. Ah yes, we all recognize it, the age-old holiday-present-dilemma. As your son is ripping the wrapping paper off the rectangular box, he is thinking about his favorite train, truck, or Wii game. What’s inside? Clothes! Most adults can quickly produce a smile that masks what they are thinking; however, for children, this is not always the case.
From the child’s perspective, consider these points:
• Your child was “hoping” for a toy versus clothes.
• Your child is experiencing something similar to stage fright.
• Your child is trying to “get through” the present opening experience.
• Your child may not know what to expect or how to behave in the way you hope or expect.
What can parents do when kids?
The more you can prepare your child for the “event” of present opening, the more likely he is going to act in a way that is socially appropriate. There are a few aspects to the preparation to make opening holiday presents more tolerable such as resetting expectations and practicing being on stage. These will decrease your child’s anxiety around this exciting event and help assure that Aunt Betty feels appreciated.
For instance, share stories from your childhood about how you wanted the big red truck and instead got a striped brown sweater. Also, lowering expectations of opening holiday presents one of the keys to success. Kids are inundated with messages that communicate that there is an abundance of toys out there and some of them will make you very happy. Prep your child to expect the brown sweater and be happy when the gift is more to his liking.
Opening holiday presents in the presence of others is akin to being on stage performing. Think of the times you were the center of attention. Even most adults are uncomfortable being center stage. Like any performance, we are better when we practice. So, have your child do a trial run of opening holiday presents, including the response. Wrap up a few household objects and have your child open them and practice responding in a positive way. Basically, you and your child are rehearsing a play called, “Thank you.” You can look at this activity as a sort of therapy for yourself by incorporating whatever your equivalent to the ”striped brown sweater,” such as the mixing bowl your husband gave to you for last year’s anniversary.
Tara Delaney is a nationally known child development expert who specializes in sensory processing, autism spectrum disorders, and social/behavioral issues. She is the author of two books: The Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book (Sourcebooks) and 101 Games and Activities for Children with Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders (McGraw-Hill). An active occupational therapist, Tara is also the Founder/Executive Director of Baby Steps Therapy, a nonprofit clinical practice focused on helping every child achieve his or her greatest potential in the classroom and beyond. Visit her web site at www.taradelaney.com.