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Nov. 27, 2022

The best possible Christmas gift is...

The best possible Christmas gift is...

One of our regular listeners has asked us to research and discuss how to better deal with a teenager's lack of gratitude when Christmas gifts don't live up to their expectations. It was a fascinating topic because we've all experienced disappointment either as the giver or receiver of a present, and the internal struggle can be very difficult.

Gratitude is a concept that's quite difficult to pin down. If you want to read the entire white paper I used as a basis for the topic then here's the link. 


Since most of you probably won't want to do that, this is the bit that I found most pertinent:


  1. What you think of the giver’s intention, so was the gift an act of pure altruism or due to selfish motives, like wishing to improve their reputation.
  2. The cost to the giver.
  3. What’s the gift worth to the recipient.
  4. Whether the gift/favor was provided by choice or obligation

For teenagers, Christmas can be particularly fraught. After years of Christmas being full of wonder and magic they have to battle the disappointment that it's 'just mum and dad'. They can also have a sense that Christmas is something parents are supposed to do, which can lead teenagers to question the extent to which they should feel any gratitude.

Having trawled through a number of teenage parenting forums I've seen just how many parents and relatives find this a really difficult time of year. Most feel pressure to give their kids 'the best', so they fret over cheaper or second-hand gifts. Some feel they are in competition with their ex-partners to prove their love with expensive gifts. Others feel held to ransom.

One commentator told how her friend 'was in tears because her 14 and 11 year old told her if they are not getting what they want for Christmas then to not bother getting them anything and the 14 year old added that Christmas is just going to be a boring time as it is.' 

If my kids tried that on me I would laugh. shrug and say, 'OK, so nothing then.' The difficulty this poor woman has is that, having caved in before, her daughter has realised it's a tactic that works and will continue to use it until something changes. She has my immense sympathy.

When I became a mother I didn't have any good memories of Christmas as a teenager, so decided to create my own version of the perfect event. I made all of the mistakes; ramping it up with too many gifts, decorations, and the perfect meal for all. After a while I realised that I dreaded Christmas, because there was so much pressure and I wasn't enjoying it at all.

Something had to change.

When a lady who was doing my nails told me how much her family genuinely love Christmas I asked her about it and realised that they had a beautiful tree, but few presents and did very little. That simplicity of family time together, and lack of pressure for anyone to perform, was at the root of their happiness. I dug into my own feelings and realised that what really made me happy was to play silly games, watch films together, and cook together.

The magic was all about togetherness and lack of structure to the day.

Having realised that, I completely reframed Christmas for the entire family. Gifts to adults were scaled right back to small tokens. My husband still raves about the special deodorant he found in his Christmas stocking, which he has since subscribed to. The teens get a bigger gift and small stocking fillers.

The real gift - from everyone to everyone - is our undivided time.

We wear pyjamas late into the morning, cook together, play games together, go for a walk together. My teens are genuinely incredibly excited about it. Yes, they have their Christmas lists but they know that it's a list of hope, not expectation. Anything they receive from the list will be received with gratitude. 

I've also reduced the pressure on gift giving at Christmas by doing random acts of giving throughout the year - whether an activity or a gift - so that they don't feel that it's all or nothing at Christmas.

The biggest game-changer has been giving my teens and allowance, which includes the money for buying their friend's birthday gifts. It's had the most incredible impact because they experience first hand how hard it is to chose well, the difficulty of budgeting, and it's made them think about why they are giving gifts at all.

After all of this, we now all understand that the time spent together - doing silly things like making gingerbread and playing games - is infinitely precious, builds depth to our relationships, and will be valued well after we've forgotten the material gifts we received.



🎁 Give your teen an allowance that includes money for presents for their closest friends on their birthdays. This can have a transformative effect on their understanding of how it feels to choose gifts carefully, the expense and the vulnerability involved.

🎁 Give only what’s on their list. Teenagers tend to develop very strong opinions of what matters. A lot of it is to do with fitting in. Don't try to second-guess, just get them what they say they want.

🎁 Their list needs to have a range of prices and tell them that they should see it as a list of hopes, not expectations. 

🎁 Gift experiences. In studies of gratitude it has been found that people feel a far deeper sense of gratitude for things they get to do rather than things they are given. You can even give them a token for an experience of their choice.

🎁 Re-frame expectations. We are the ones who set the tone for Christmas and what they should expect. In my house we've reduced the emphasis on gift-giving and replaced it with a focus on spending quality time together on an equal footing. This means getting our teens involved in the cooking, and giving them a voice over what games/TV they want us all to enjoy. 

🎁 Model gratitude. If your teens hear and see you showing gratitude then they are more likely to understand the concept and reciprocate. There is an element of manners about receiving gifts too, and these need to be taught. 

🎁 Give at other times of the year. Focusing all the present giving on Christmas and birthdays makes those events very high stakes for our teens. Giving unexpected little gifts, or doing things for them at other times of the year, will incite greater gratitude and reduce the pressure on these key holidays.

And one last, but important, point. Help them to connect with people who are less fortunate them. Not just once a year at Christmas, but on a regular basis. Our feelings about our success in life are very much created by context. If your teens can see how it hard it could be they will be far more likely to be grateful for what they have.