Managing Expectations and Reactions During Visits and Gift Exchange

There are several occasions when we are expected to give and receive gifts, with Christmas being one of the most obvious. At these times, often parents and children are judged for their “poor” child rearing skills or their child’s “unacceptable” reactions.

When a child visits a relative near a Christmas or birthday celebration, that child needs to sit still and listen, show affection, avoid running around the person’s house, chasing animals, breaking antiques and being noisy. They need to resist the urge to ask “where is my present?” and indeed, even suppress any expectations of presents because in some cases, there won’t be one.

When the child receives a present, they need to open and act both excited and grateful for the contents… …even if they don’t like it, even if they’ve already received four of the same already and even if it’s not entirely what they “ordered”.

It’s a lot to ask and most special needs children won’t manage even the simplest of these tasks, let alone the complex “first reaction” display of emotions when opening a present. One way to improve the odds however is to establish a few ground rules and “coach” them for the event.

Coaching and Preparing

  1. Many special needs children respond well to rules, so perhaps a rule about “not running in grandma’s house” or “not touching the trinkets” may help. Make sure that your child knows that you’re approachable at any time for help but be sure to remind them about interrupting. A good rule could be that your child should come and put their hand on yours. That will be their signal that they need to talk. As a parent, you’ll have to make your best excuses and respond quickly because a child isn’t going to be able to do this without attention for very long. Reward good behaviour with a response.
  2. Consider the surroundings ahead of time and think about ways that you can minimise the sensory issues. For example, older houses may “smell funny” which could affect sensitive noses. Going outside for a little play might help. Don’t forget that food will trip your child up too and make sure that you give them good guidelines on how to dispose of unwanted food – taking it out with their hands and putting it on the side of the plate – not bending over and spitting it out in front of everyone.
  3. Boredom is another thing that you need to consider. I know that it’s unsociable to take a child out only to have them play on their DS or iPhone all day. You want them to socialise with the relatives but at the end of the day, if you bring along a distraction or two, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself for longer. Don’t have them bring their DS. You bring it, secretly. Keep it hidden until it becomes clear that it’s needed.
  4. Finally, practice the present opening technique. In particular you need to teach your child how to handle disappointment and how to put on a “brave face”. Make sure that your child knows that you’ll “fix everything afterwards” by exchanging unwanted or broken toys etc, but that no matter how hard they cry, nothing can be fixed on the day. My mother taught me and my sister to say “Ohhh, just what I always wanted…” which was a code-word for “Yuck, that’s awful!”. Unfortunately, over time we got so good at making the phrase sound bad that it became embarrassing for her. If a toy is clearly causing your child distress, remove it and give them something else to play with until later.

Knowing When Enough is Enough
You might really want to see grandma but the fact is that your child may not be able to cope with a long visit or a long day. As a parent, you need to be in tune with your child’s senses and know when enough is enough and it’s time to leave. You can always visit again later. Don’t think of this as “giving in to your child”, think of it as anticipating his needs. After all, the aim should be to get out before a meltdown, not because of one.

Think about the day in general when planning. Is your Christmas one long party crawl from one noisy relative’s house to another? Is there too much going on? Are you too far out of routine? Are there appropriate sensory break areas in the houses you plan to visit?

Avoid trying to do everything on the one day. Keep your visits short and sweet and postpone conflicting visits instead of rushing around madly trying to do everything and be everywhere at once. If necessary, consider holding a Christmas or other celebration at your house so that change is reduced and so that your child is comfortable retreating to a sensory break room when he needs it.

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About Gavin Bollard

Gavin is a dad who discovered that his own differences were due to Aspergers while researching his son’s diagnosis. His blog, Life with Aspergers, delves into the day-to-day details of Asperger's and related conditions while maintaining a focus on the positives.




  • http://www.facebook.com/JudyEndow Judy Endow

    Nice blog! One thing I find helpful and find I can truly be thankful about when opening a gift is that the giver took the time to find and wrap a gift for me. So, whether I like the gift or not I am able to very honestly say something like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me. It is wonderful!” Personally, I have a hard time telling lies about liking something I don’t so that strategy never worked out for me because if I told the lie of “Just what I always wanted” I would follow up with “but that really isn’t true.” LOL

  • gbollard

    Thanks Judy, Yes, that’s a better way of handling the presents scenario. The one I cited was invented by my mother (presumably out of desperation). I’m proud of her for inventing something like that before the days of internet support.

    It did work well for a number of years until my neurotypical sister started making a mockery of it and I started copying it. Before the system, things were much worse with me accidentally telling people that gifts were rubbish.

    I remember saying to a relative who’d just bought us something from K-Tel that K-Tel was always advertising things that didn’t work – then I gave specific examples until my sister noticed that the gift giver was upset and told me off. To this day, I feel bad about that memory because I didn’t realize it was hurting her and she was one of my favorite relatives. I don’t think that things were ever as good between us again.