Why giving a gift can be catastrophic

Giving presents to children isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Children can be seriously distressed by it and I’ve even seen its damaging effects on adults. As a single mum, I have become much more aware of the impact it can have on my children. It’s true that I’m a responsible parent and believe in giving only to the good and helping children in need.

Recently, I became aware of a campaign in the UK to end multi-storey window displays that show fake fruit and vegetables. Researchers who assessed toddlers’ reactions to multi-colour or edible “extreme junk food” found that young children feel “very offended and humiliated” by it.

Some toys (like cuddly penguins) and tourist memorabilia (such as toys in the back of a boat) can be very realistic. I saw Cuddles the penguin doll at a market stall once and was greeted by an older lady who said: “If this is in your Christmas list, this is a filthy thing to give as a present.” I know that parents sometimes view anything they see as a gift and wouldn’t think twice about giving such a toy to their child. It’s the same with decoration: some people won’t buy a child anything they can see in the room, but some will. I suppose you could choose a destination to go on holiday with, but then who are you going to give your child? Where’s the fun in that?

Tradition, too, can be destructive. I have a 12-year-old daughter and five-year-old son and at Christmas time we are often given fun but permanent furniture and knick-knacks. Who am I to say no? Is Christmas really about giving and the happiness of the children, or is it all about buying them something tangible to help them “have a life”?

Another problem is that small children don’t understand the concept of “sale price”, meaning items given as presents are often much more expensive than the children think they are. I’ve seen toys that a five-year-old would think were for the best sale price being given as presents with no thought of what price it might have been if left unused. Do little children understand what’s going on with their presents? Could this have been why all those trees were stripped of presents? This is serious.

There are instances when parents do give gifts that are inappropriate. It’s a difficult thing to hear. A child who has just lost a family member will never be able to move on from what they have been through. It can be hard to raise your voice or do something that children find distressing. You can support your child in different ways: removing or replacing something from the family tree can help.

I was a teenager when a murder and suicide took place in my family and my mother began to withdraw from our lives. I was left behind and felt like a failure as a parent. What we often forget is that some of the aspects of grief experienced in adulthood are very similar to that experienced by children. Children who feel abandoned, let down or left feeling inadequate can feel very angry. In particular, they need to feel loved and supported, especially at this time of year. My mother was lucky that her grief was not overwhelming and she was able to move on with her life. And hopefully, that won’t ever happen to a child. It breaks my heart.

• Essie Fields is a single mother and events planner

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