When that must-have gift just isn’t going to happen

Inflation and an impending recession have affected the gift-giving season. Here’s how to help children deal with that disappointment.

On Christmas mornings, the tree at the Wray family is typically packed with presents of all sizes. “But with the inflation and the layoffs in tech, we’ve been thinking of scaling back,” says Helen Fang, a mother of two in San Carlos, California.

Some gifts for their three-and-a-half-year-old will come from Facebook’s Buy Nothing group. Helen and her husband, Ed Wray, were more upfront with their 15-year-old. “We’ve had a conversation about what she wants and are really focusing on two items.”

The Wray family is not alone in being conservative with spending this holiday season. Mass layoffs have been sweeping across multiple industries, including tech, media, health care, and real estate. Inflation rates have risen 8.2 percent over the past 12 months, resulting in higher prices for everything from gas to grocery staples.

With less discretionary income, many parents are choosing to spend less on holiday gifts. According to a report from Deloitte, consumers plan on shopping less in 2022—and purchasing nearly half the number of gifts bought in 2021. That means children might end up with fewer toys or not getting the expensive gift they had their hearts set on.

And that’s going to leave a lot of kids really disappointed. However, learning to cope with disappointment is an important life skill. Here are some ways parents can help their children cope with their feelings so they can still enjoy this most wonderful time of the year.

The brain science behind disappointment 

Located in the “emotional control center” of the brain, the amygdala perceives any big emotion a child feels as a threat. “A chain of events, also called the fight-or-flight response, then occurs that prepares the body to respond to that threat,” says Sarah Conway, a psychologist in Wollongong, Australia, and owner of Mindful Little Minds. “During this time, stress hormones in the body increase, and the area of the brain responsible for thinking, reasoning, and planning goes offline.”

For children, that’s because the area of the brain responsible for impulse control and logical thinking doesn’t fully develop until people are in their mid-20s. “Much of their behavior in these moments is out of their conscious control, as the brain is focused only on survival,” Conway says.

So when a child is disappointed, they’re literally unable to access reason. Unlike adults who think with their prefrontal cortex—the rational decision-making part of the brain—children use their more reactive amygdala, or emotional brain. “When kids want something, they want it now,” Conway says. “They have no ability to wait or delay gratification.”

Conway adds that children also haven’t had a lot of practice when it comes to managing their emotions. “So when they don’t get what they want, it might be the worst thing that has happened in their short lives,” she says. “Or at the very least, that’s what it feels to them.”

Why your kid needs to experience disappointment

Disappointment is caused when reality does not live up to expectations, and the feeling can manifest in various ways. Some children may throw tantrums or withdraw; others may steal or show aggression.

Those reactions, of course, will not serve them well as adults. So when children learn to cope with disappointment, they also learn to self-regulate strong emotions, says Melissa Hunt, children’s program supervisor at St. Clair County Community Mental Health in Port Huron, Michigan.

“We hate to see our kids disappointed. And it would be really amazing if we could just take that feeling away and make everything perfect,” says Hunter Clarke-Fields, author of Raising Good Humans. “But we do our children a disservice when we try to protect them from all the uncomfortable feelings.”

When kids are overly protected, they get into early adulthood unprepared to handle life’s pains and difficulties. And they end up as anxious and overwhelmed young adults. Research has suggested that parents of anxious children tend to have more negative expectations of their children’s ability to cope with stressful situations and are more likely to intervene for their children when they display negative emotions or are in distress.

“It’s healthy for kids—with loving support of their parents—to go through uncomfortable feelings and realize how they can handle it,” Clarke-Fields says.

Talking to children about disappointment

Disappointment is an inevitable human experience, but parents can take this opportunity to guide their child through a difficult period. “At some point, we’re all going to be let down,” says Lindsey Rosen, a Denver-based postdoctoral fellow in developmental psychology. “And if kids can learn to manage disappointment, then they can learn how to respond in productive ways.” Here are some tips to start the conversation.

Be honest. Clarke-Fields suggests sharing the potentially disappointing news with your child honestly and directly, and provide an age-appropriate explanation for why the child is going to have to wait for their gift—or not receive it at all. For instance: “I really wish I could have gotten you this, but I couldn’t this year,”or “The teddy bear is on a long boat ride and will arrive in the spring.”

Accept their emotions. Allow your child to experience their disappointment, then validate their feelings. “Don’t belittle the child or tell them to ‘just toughen up,’” says Linda A. Camras, professor emerita in psychology at DePaul University’s College of Science and Health in Chicago.

That includes trying to change their feelings or talk them out of being disappointed. Camras also advises against telling kids that they should be grateful for what they do have. “As parents, our job is to be as present as you can be and listen,” Clarke-Fields says. “It’s not like there’s anything to change at that point.”

Label the feelings. The most important thing, especially for younger kids, is to name the feeling. “If a kid finds out they’re not getting a gift, they may not feel sad right away. They might be angry, frustrated, confused, or acting out of control,” Rosen says. “The kid might be feeling all of those things for the first time.”

Instead, help children name that experience: You’re feeling disappointed. “Now, the kid has the vocabulary and the ability to put a name to the feeling,” Rosen says. “That’s a huge step toward emotional intelligence.”

Understand the true disappointment. Adults sometimes make an assumption that child is disappointed for a certain reason, when it’s really something else. For example, a parent might assume their child is disappointed that a bicycle didn’t appear under the tree, but they’re actually sad about not being able to join their friends on a bike ride.

“Spend time helping kids unpack that moment so that they have the opportunity to connect with what they’re thinking, feeling, noticing, and doing,” says Andrea Hussong, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Clarke-Fields suggests going for a walk with your child or coloring side by side, so your child doesn’t feel the pressure of a face-to-face conversation.

Set realistic expectations. If you haven’t already, don’t overpromise for the holidays. “Giving children a list of realistic options can lead to less disappointment in the end,” Hunt says. (If you have overpromised, refer back to tip one.)

Practice soothing techniques. Try deep breathing, coloring, writing, or even crumbling paper. Hunt suggests practicing these soothing techniques anytime a stressful situation comes up. “It’s like a fire drill,” she says. “Practice these techniques before the crisis allows children to use them when the time is right.”

Model good self-regulation
. Camras urges parents not to get upset themselves when a child is disappointed, but instead share their feelings and demonstrate healthy coping strategies. (“I’m also feeling disappointed that I don’t get to watch you open your gifts.”)

“That’s showing the kid that this is a healthy, normal emotion that everybody feels,” Rosen says. “It’s a part of life, and it’s not so much about if we’re going to experience it, but how we respond to it.”

This article was originally published in November 2021, and has been updated with new statistics about holiday spending habits.

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