The holidays are an exciting time for kids: presents! School vacation! Cookies! A dead tree that’s been dragged into the living room! But sometimes, all that fun can come crashing down. Maybe they’re sad they didn’t get the exact toy they asked for, or are jealous of their best friend’s ski trip or cruise. The disappointment can even come in the form of a first existential crisis; maybe kids get sad that the holiday season is ending, or are appalled by the revelation that Santa isn’t real. And, for kids as for adults, the holidays can be reminders of loss.
With everything already so heightened (again, there’s a tree in your house and a ton of new presents under it) the disappointment can feel heightened, too. Parents, who are already stretched thin and stressed out during the holiday season, can easily feel frustrated when a child is upset amidst all the holiday cheer. Conversely, they can also feel guilty: after all, isn’t Christmas about creating magical memories? And aren’t you somehow failing as a parent if your kid is sulking rather than cherry-cheeked and joyful every minute of the month?
Spoiler: You’re not. And, far from failing (or raising an ungrateful child), you are actually being given a wonderful opportunity to teach resiliency and parent with intention, says Dr. Andrea Gurney, a family psychologist and professor in Santa Barbara, California. And no matter what disappointments your kids are struggling with, she recommends handling it the same way.
This may seem fairly obvious, and may also be a step you can skip if your kid is already letting you know exactly what is bothering them. Then again, if a child is being sad or whiny, our first instinct can be to immediately jump to cheering them up. Instead, take a minute to find out, if you need to, what’s going on. It’s also worth noting that, even if parents think they know what’s going on, it’s worth checking in first. Gurney tells SheKnows that, for older kids, disappointment can sometimes present as anger or frustration, so it’s worth having a conversation about what is really going on. Toddlers, another tricky age group, often won’t be able to tell you what is bothering them. For younger kids, Gurney recommends parents give them some options. By helping them learn to identify emotions, you’re also teaching emotional intelligence.
This is perhaps the most important part of dealing with a disappointed child.
“Parents a lot of times feel like, ‘Oh, gosh but then I’m legitimizing their disappointment and I don’t want to do that,'” says Gurney. If your child is upset about presents, for example, the impulse can be to simply say, “But you got so many presents.” (While also saying in your head, “And I spent so much money on them!”) But, far from simply giving your child carte blanche to be a holiday autocrat, you’re validating their feelings and letting them know they’re seen and understood.
Empathizing is also different from simply soothing a child, which can ultimately become a way for kids to avoid dealing with emotions. So if a child is upset they didn’t get an Elsa doll even though she never once mentioned an Elsa doll and instead repeatedly asked for a Paw Patrol lookout, you may feel like saying, “But you got a new Paw Patrol toy and isn’t that your favorite show?” But, the best bet may well be to momentarily fight instinct and instead say, “You didn’t get the toy you really wanted for Christmas and you’re disappointed. That’s hard!”
It’s also helpful to remind yourself in those moments that there’s very real brain science, not just a poor attitude, behind seemingly illogical disappointments or frustrations. Children and adults who are upset are often experiencing what’s known as an “amygdala hijack,” or a response to anger or stress that is similar to our “fight or flight” instinct. In other words, emotions are literally taking over your brain. For children, the reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t developed. Empathy, says Gurney, will do a lot to help actually calm the amygdala and, by extension, your distressed child.
Once you’ve empathized, you do get to move on to reminding your kid how lucky they are — kind of. While you don’t want to then simply tell them, “Sure you didn’t get a ski vacation, but you did get a week off from school with a Disney+ subscription at your disposal,” Gurney recommends instead leading by asking. If a child is sad about toys, for example, you can ask them about what toys they did get and talk about gratitude. It’s also OK to be frank with your kids, in age-appropriate ways, about how lucky they are compared to many less fortunate families.
You can remind them that, even if they didn’t get Airpods or a ski vacation this holiday, they did get a new toy and some time off from school. But, again, you don’t want to tell a child how to feel. Instead, parents should model “curiosity and engagement,” says Gurney. By asking questions and guiding a discussion, you’re also empowering your child to reframe the situation, instead of simply telling them how to feel.
Perspective-taking can also be a good time to talk about feelings versus behavior. By validating your child’s feelings, you’re letting them know they’re seen and understood. But, as a parent, you also can discuss acceptable behavior. It’s ok to feel disappointed by a present from your grandparents, for example, but it’s not ok to pout or storm off. You can be sad that screen time is limited during breaks, but you can’t scowl and lash out at your parents.
Some problems don’t have a solution — and, after perspective-taking, you may have to let your child sit with their feelings for a bit, even if things aren’t 100% back to normal. But, if there are potential solutions, you can then start to brainstorm them. Again, however, you should let your kid lead the problem-solving. It may be that your child is old enough to save up to buy the toy on their own, or has a friend they can visit to play with it.
But, again, Gurney says to go in curious and with questions. Instead of proposing a way for extra allowance to be earned off the bat, you can say, “I have some ideas for what you could do, do you?” If they’re sad about visiting family leaving, or travel ending, you can ask, “Are there some ways you can stay in touch with Grandma even if she has to go back to Montana after this?” Your kid’s solutions may surprise you, and when it comes from the child themself, they might be more likely to take ownership of it.
While this may take more time than simply distracting your child, or telling them to get over it, you are also creating a more resilient human.
“Life is not always positive and easy and we don’t always get what we want,” says Gurney. “When [kids] learn that at a young age, they learn how to deal with those emotions, they learn how to deal with disappointment, with the frustration, with jealousy.” They will also learn how to deal with it later on their own, both in Christmases to come and into their adult lives. It’s one of the biggest gifts you can give your child, and you don’t have to bother wrapping it up in a bow first.