Surviving the holidays: Gift giving time and opening presents

During the holidays, the opening of presents is an anticipated event by relatives. But our special needs child may not behave the way other children do during this time. Here are tips on getting your child involved in gift giving, getting meaningful presents from relatives and handling issues when opening presents.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


Finding out what your child wantsopening presents iStock
While many kids love to go through a toy catalog and check off what they want, your child may have difficulty doing so. There are simply too many choices. So what to do?

Who knows your child better than you? Go through your toy catalog and cut out the pictures of toys you think would be interesting to your child. Tape them in a looseleaf notebook (one toy to a page). Have him check off the toys he likes in this much smaller version. If your child still has difficulty making a decision, show two pictures at a time. Ask your child to select the toy he likes better. Continue with the next batch of pictures.

Gifts from relatives
Do you have a house full of gifts from relatives that your child has no interest in playing? How do we get our families to purchase gifts our children are sure to enjoy?

Point your family in the right direction. Create a list of items and email it to your relatives along with the link to the store and the product number. Amazon does a nice job with their wish list feature. You can make one universal wish list combining products from any website.

Another suggestion is to tell family members that your child really likes to pick out her own toys at the store. Ask for gift cards (e.g. Target). Use the gift cards yourself and let your child go on a spending spree wherever she wants with the total dollar amount. This is a good strategy for older children who may want toys that are no longer age appropriate in the eyes of your relatives.

Look at toy catalogs with a therapist's eye
Family members don't like to buy presents from therapy catalogs because they seem more work related than fun. But many toys can be both fun and work on various skills. Look at toy catalogs with a new perspective. Put your occupational therapist hat on. What toys have a hands-on tactile look to them. Now put your speech pathologist hat on. What games promote word recall? What games include player interaction? What games help foster conversation? If you browse through catalogs while thinking about your child's strengths and challenges, you are sure to begin spotting some great gift item suggestions.

If your child is seeing a therapist, ask them for suggestions.  They have an entire closet of ideas in their office.

Involve your chlid in gift giving
Here's an activity to get your child thinking about other family members. Make a checklist with the names of your family members. Go to a dollar store and let them pick out a present for everyone on the list. It allows him to do something personal for his family members without breaking the bank. If it is difficult for your child to make a selection, give him two suggestions for one family member and help him make a decision. Your child may not be interested in wrapping the presents and that's okay. You might find him excited later at the idea of presenting gifts he personally picked out for his relatives.

Giving to those in need
The holidays is a great time to work on charity projects. The act of giving shows your child that his actions can have a positive impact on others. Your own town may have a secret Santa program allowing you to buy gifts for a family in need. Or check out The Mint website which gives kids local ideas on how to give, share and help others.

Heifer International is a good organization for children. You can create a team, donate to existing teams or make individual donations. Your donation helps children and families around the world receive training and animal gifts that help them become self-reliant. Rather than just submitting a dollar amount, you can choose the type of animal you want (e.g. Flock of ducks $20) and learn how those animals can help a family. In addition Heifer promotes "passing on th gift." The recipient family gives the first animal offspring to another family in their village to help build a strong community.

Gift giving time
When it comes time to actually opening presents, a number of challenges become apparent for some children with disabilities. Here are strategies for the following situations.

Your child is unable to open presents
While everyone gleefully opens presents, your child can only watch. Earlier in the day, before the melee of gift giving starts, ask each attending relative to spend time with your child and open the present for her. This will be more meaningful for both the relative and your child. By the time everyone opens presents, your child will have already received hers. Space out the individual gift giving throughout the day.

Your child is uninterested in opening presents
Relatives are waiting for your child to open his presents but he pays them no mind. Even if you open the presents for your child, he doesn't acknowledge that they are there. What do you do? Prior to the holiday practice opening presents with your child by wrapping a high interest toy or snack item. Practice saying, "thank you" after opening a gift.

If your child still shows no interest on the big day, explain to relatives that your child is so interested in the festivities that he's unable to focus on the presents. Tell them that he will enjoy opening and playing with his gifts in the quiet of his home or after the party.

Your child is interested in unwrapping presents but not the gift
For your child, it's all about ripping the wrapping paper. He doesn't even pay attention to the toy. Take note of who gave which present. On a later day when your child plays with his toy, have him call the relative to say thanks. They will really appreciate it. Another suggestion is to ask some relatives ahead of time if your child can help open their presents too. Your child can look forward to Grandma inviting him to open the presents for her.

Your child focuses on one present
Your child has a mound of presents but stops after opening the third gift. She received a book she likes and wants to inspect every page. Let her open the presents at her own speed. You might end up taking half of the gifts home with the wrapping still on them and that's okay. She can open the rest the next day.

Your child is overwhelmed at everyone opening presents
Your child may be overwhelmed by the chaos of everyone talking at once and tearing the wrapping paper off their presents. This is usually a sensory issue and can be painful for your child. It's acceptable to go to another room and watch a holiday TV show while the rest of the family opens presents. You can include your child in the gift giving by allowing her to present a gift to each relative earlier in the day and have them open it. Your relative may also decide to giver her present to your child at this time. Now your child can give and receive a gift in a relaxed atmosphere. Plus this gives you the opportunity to work on conversation skills! If the issue is sound sensitivity, try putting on ear plugs just before it's time to open presents.

Your child is too excited
Your child is overwhelmed but excited and doesn't know what to do. Give him a job. Have him pass out presents. Have him organize the presents into piles according to person. Have him put the wrapping paper into a trash bag. Does your child know a holiday song or how to play an instrument? See if he can do a solo performance while people are opening presents.

Your child doesn't like the present
Some children have a hard time containing their disappointment when receiving a duplicate gift or a gift they do not like. Here is where a little preplanning is helpful. Remind your child that he may receive a gift he does not like. Tell him that you can return any gift for something that he does like. The important thing is to thank the relative whether or not he likes the gift. For the child that simply must say something, give your child a code word for a bad gift (e.g. jello) or have your child come to you and whisper in your ear.

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs