Reduce Celebration Anxiety: How to Give and Receive Gifts

Teach your child how to give a gift, as well as receive a gift. A child who feels prepared is a child who is less liable to be anxious, tearful, and easily overwhelmed. Gift-giving etiquette is a life skill all children should learn. A child with autism who thrives on routine and familiarity often finds celebrations very upsetting. Follow these suggestions on how to teach how to give and receive gifts to make those special days memorable for the good reasons.

We assume that everyone enjoys receiving a gift, especially kids. Yet many parents report that getting a gift causes fear and anxiety in their children with autism. Simply put, it just is not fun for them. Rather than bubbling with excitement, they face increasing anxiety over the unknown. They fear opening a gift when they don’t know what’s under the paper. They truly hate surprises, even good ones. They may be uncertain about how to respond to the gift. Or they may worry about disappointment if the gift isn’t their one desired item. It’s more than enough to push our kids on the spectrum over the edge to a meltdown.

Holidays, birthdays, Valentine’s Day and celebrations … all represent a challenging change in schedules and environment. Do we really want to add more anxiety just because gifts should be wrapped, we want our loved ones to be surprised, or because that’s what tradition dictates? If your child shows stress and difficult behaviors over receiving gifts, maybe this is the year to explore new options. Rather than following traditions or expectations, let’s find ways to help kids with autism learn to enjoy getting gifts.

How to Give and Receive Gifts

Here are a few ideas to get you started. Use your well-honed parent radar to judge how each idea may/may not be suitable for your child.

Don’t keep secrets. Let your child know what gifts he is receiving. This may be quite difficult as parents want their children to experience the magical joy of the holiday season, which includes delight as they open unknown presents. However, you can remove a lot of anxiety by telling them what gifts to expect. Giving hints without being specific may be enough for some children, and it can be made into a game. For example, let him guess which “category” a present is from. Simply knowing he’s getting a cartoon-related action figure may be enough to put his mind at ease.

• Create a picture board showing the gifts. Get a large piece of poster board in a color that fits the season or occasion. Cut the poster board into a fun shape, such as a large heart. Print or copy online images of the gifts she will receive and tape or glue them onto the poster board. This visual reminder of what gifts she can expect will remove fear of the unknown. Keep the picture board as a way to build memories and as a tool to remind her of the fun. PS. Surprisingly, some moms who tried this said it did not make their children want the presents right away. They were content to wait for the big day as long as they knew what to expect.

• Find alternatives to gift wrap. Skip the gift wrap or use gift bags without tissue paper. If you do use wrapping, don’t wind ribbon around the box, making it more frustrating to open. Instead of wrapping paper, use a card, picture or even simple shapes cut from construction paper and tape them on the gift. They won’t cover and hide the gift, but they’re fun and give the illusion of being wrapped.

• Proactively discuss gifts with family and friends. Don’t leave the door open to random gifts. Give people a list of items you know your child either likes or expects. Explain about your child’s special interests and assure them it’s ok to buy yet another train, dinosaur or whatever your child collects.

• Prepare your child for unexpected gifts. Write a social story teaching him how to respond and role play until he’s comfortable. (See accompanying article in this section.) Be prepared to deal with resistance to telling socially accepted “little white lies” about gifts he doesn’t like and work together to come up with responses that are truthful yet kind. Talk about what he can do with a gift he doesn’t like.

• Consider their interests. This seems like obvious advice, but holidays and birthdays often become prime time when family and friends think it’s “fun” to experiment with new gifts. While we all want to expand our children’s interests, high-anxiety occasions are not the best time to introduce new topics and toys.

• Don’t forget unique events. It’s easy to overlook the potential anxiety associated with typical yet infrequent events, such as receiving cards and candy on Valentine’s Day. Be sure to prepare in advance using picture cards, social stories, and schedules.

Gift-Getting Etiquette

Child opening gifts: Reduce Celebration Anxiety: How to Give and Receive GiftsOften overlooked in carefully laid plans to teach your child party or holiday gift etiquette is the art of opening a gift. Here’s how the gracious giftee does it:

  • Open and read the card first, then open the gift.
  • Keep scissors nearby for the bow or ribbon that just won’t come undone.
  • Find the seam in the paper to start tearing.
  • Once it’s fully opened, thank the giver. Be sure your child understands 100% honesty is not always appropriate at times like this. Rehearse beforehand with your child a single, universal phrase, like “thank you so much” or “this is so thoughtful” that will work in all situations.
  • Set the gift aside gently, whether you like it or not. Flinging or throwing an undesirable gift hurts the giver’s feelings.
  • Open all his gifts before dashing away to play with a favorite

Post-party written thank you notes are a must.

As long as they are personal, they can be dictated to you and signed by the child, handwritten or drawn by the child himself, or e-mailed. This further reinforces how much we appreciate the effort, thought and expense to which the giver went, and gives you and your child a chance to explore social thinking, handwriting and composition skills.

Selection reprinted with permission from the 2010 revised edition of 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk. Future Horizons, Inc., publisher.

This article is taken with permission from The Autism Asperger’s Digest, a division of Future Horizons, Inc.. The Autism Asperger’s Digest was created to meet the needs of teachers, therapists, and family members who face the challenge of autism.  Our books, videos, and conferences are geared to bring you the most current information possible to assist in that challenge.

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