What types of gifts work best for hurt kids?

by | Parenting

Let’s face it. Holidays and special celebrations can be a lot of fun, but they can also be VERY hard for families of tough kids…especially when it comes to gifts. Gift-giving can be a tricky balance for sure. At least at my house, if I lean too far in any direction, it doesn’t take long before everyone is stuck smack in the middle of a chaos storm from hell rather than enjoying the magic and sparkle that so many others enjoy during these times.

I’m a big believer, however, that the joy and fun we once knew and now long for can be restored when we do things our way and do things that work for our family, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks.

Simply put, every family is different. Every child is different. What works for the neighbors or the cousins or the other kids at school will be a disaster for a family like mine. I’ve had to learn to do things differently in order to make them work. I have a little secret for you, too. I like what we do now WAY better than I ever did when we were trying to march to everyone else’s beat.

This is a tough subject for many families of hurt kids.  This is a topic I get quite a few questions about…especially around birthdays and other gift-giving holidays such as Christmas. So, let’s talk about it!

What doesn’t work

Let’s jump right in to the obvious…but in reality, might not be so obvious so some. The “traditional” gifts of toys, games, electronics, and cash that so many kids think they want or need or that everyone HAS to have don’t usually work for us…and frequently end in utter disaster. Even though our sweeties want (and often demand) the latest and greatest of everything, they frequently lack the developmental skills and any sense of responsibility or gratitude when it comes to actually using what they receive or properly caring for those items.

Many kids, especially those who have experienced broken or damaged attachments, are also highly triggered by “stuff”. Junk stuff, precious stuff, cheap stuff, expensive stuff, pretty stuff, ugly stuff, and even garbage is all the same to them. They struggle mightily to determine the actual value of any item, either monetarily or emotionally. For many kids, stuff is stuff and it’s all the same and they have no idea what to do with any of it  after the novelty of the moment wears off.

As a result, most games foster a very unhealthy level of competition rather than fun and the pieces are often scattered from here to next year the first time the kids are left to their own devices to play them. Most toys (including cars, trucks, baby dolls, and barbies) are either destroyed, traded, abused, or aren’t developmentally appropriate for my kids. This has created a lot of stress over the years, too. They also lose interest in most toys fairly quickly simply because they don’t know what to do with them. They were deprived of play in their early years and to this day still don’t know how to actually play, use a toy, or even how to properly care for what they receive.

Another big issue we’ve had especially with things like race tracks, pottery sets, and robotics kits is they are too flimsy to work as advertised or expected. Either that or they’re too complicated and have too many tiny little pieces involved to be enjoyed. That’s always a huge disappointment for eveyrone! Furthermore, the kids are rarely ever able to assemble them the first time without help and are even less likely to be able to reassemble them or use them correctly once things have been cleaned up and put away after the big day is over. Consequently, key pieces end up missing or broken or the item simply goes unused because it’s too frustrating for them to enjoy.

Electronics and cash get their own categories. I can’t say they’re a solid “no”, especially for older kids, but both do need careful consideration. Video games are fun, but they’re also quite stimulating and addictive, especially for brains and emotions that are still trying to heal. In today’s day and age, many of them also contain crude, rude, or graphically violent images, humor, and themes that many justify as “suitable” for kids, but are a disaster for mine.

Phones and tablets are always on the want list (especially if they’re the latest, greatest versions). If you say “yes” to these types of items, be prepared for kids to be careless with them, for them to never be “good enough”, and for your kids not to appreciate the boundaries that must come with them. It is essential that any device that can connect to the internet or has messaging capabilities of any kind include VERY STRONG parental controls and filtering, usage limits, and shared passwords so parents get access to the actual device whenever requested. Any device that is unfiltered, unmonitored, and unchecked is an open invitation for trouble for so very many of our kids. Many a child’s and family’s lives have been turned upside down and shattered simply by what the kids were able to access, weasle their way around, and consume when the big people weren’t paying attention.

Cash and sometimes even gift cards can also awaken the entitlement dragon, especially if they are given directly to the kids. The money may burn a hole in their pocket and they’ll demand that it’s spent NOW…or it can also trigger deprivation when what they have isn’t enough to purchase that “cooler” item sitting on the shelves next to what they can afford.

Unfortunately, more often not, money and gift cards end up being wasted, squandered, randomly given away (sometimes in large quantities) or traded for things of much less value in order to “buy” friends…since many of our kids don’t know how to keep them in any other way.

So what does work?

Doing things our way and in a way that works for our family has required some creativity over the years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though. Through it, we have been able to reclaim some of the genuine fun and excitement of these celebrations. So, let’s talk about what does work.

Keep it Simple

Our kids don’t need a lot of “stuff”. Nor do they need things with all sorts of flashy bells and whistles. Simple, meaningful, and old-school are often the best way to go.

Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, blocks, puzzles, Jenga, and marble machines are great options.

None of them have to be brand name, either. Many of the big box retailers offer store branded options that are just as good, but a lot less expensive than the name brands.

Keep it Inexpensive

Especially if your kids are still struggling to control their big feelings and have a track record of not appreciating or being able to care for what they receive, consider purchasing 2nd hand, refurbished, or inexpensive items. If they break them or ruin them, oh well.

Keep it Low-Key

At our house, we do 1-2 gifts for birthdays and only do a very small party if they can handle it…which for many, many years they couldn’t. We’ve also found that casually taking a couple of their friends to the buffet, out for pizza, or to the fun center and requesting no gifts has worked a LOT better than parties of any kind.

For Christmas, everyone gets 3 presents…something fun from “Santa” (even though the mythical fat guy hasn’t been part of our celebration for many year now), something special from Mom & Dad, and something to wear. We also learned many, many years ago that we all enjoy the season a lot more if we spend the lion’s share of our budget things for our entire family to enjoy or do together rather than individual people.

Now let’s get specific!


Practical Items

Not every gift has to be flashy or even fun. Practical is a great choice, especially if it’s something they need. In fact, when needs are met, the gifts are often better received, cared for, and appreciated.

New sheets, blankets, towels, socks, underwear, special dishes that are only theirs, and clothing they like

Comfort Items

Regardless of chronological age, meet the kids where they are developmentally. Remember that many of our kids from hard places missed significant developmental steps during early childhood. They may be stuck in a developmental age that is much younger than their chronological age. Regardless of how old they are, they need to go back and make up those steps in order to move forward.

Teddy bears, fuzzy jammies and blankets,  soft hoodies, baby dolls, or even hard caramel to suck on all help soothe the soul and ease anxiety.

Sensory Items

Many kids from hard places have very real sensory needs. The more we can help them meet these needs, the more peaceful life will be for everyone.

Beanbags, balance boards, spinners, fidget toys, hula hoops (make them yourself out of rolled sprinkler pipe…they’re easy and much better quality) Hoppity Horse, sensory bins, and mini trampolines are all great choices.

One of our newer favorites is “moon sand” (aka kinetic sand). That stuff is so cool!

To jazz things up, why not try a mermaid tail blanket or a mummy style sleeping bag for lounging around and watching TV?

Weighted Items

Anything weighted will also be a huge hit for most special needs kids (and adults, too!)

Vests, blankets, capes, and even stuffed animals all work very well.

Though there are plenty of places online that will make these things for you, these items don’t have to break the bank.  Pinterest is full of ideas for making all of them relatively inexpensively, even if you don’t know how to sew. Blankets can be made from beach towels and Velcro, and you can split the seam of any pre-made stuffed animal, slip in a bag full of weight, and sew it back up with a needle and thread.

Just one word of caution about any weighted items…regardless of what the item is, make sure the weight you add is either removable or washable. While dry beans, popcorn, macaroni, or even small fish tank type gravel might seem like cheap options, consider what will happen the first time they’re peed on or have to go through the wash for some other reason!

The only weighted stuffing material that is truly washable is the little plastic pellet stuff. You can find small bags of it sold as “weighted stuffing” in the craft stores or you can buy it in bulk as polypropylene pellets on eBay. That’s actually my favorite way to get it. If you’re using more than about 1 lb of it (which doesn’t go very far), it’s a lot less expensive to buy it in bulk. If you’re not sewing your own little pockets out of very sturdy fabric, be sure to double or even triple bag it using top quality freezer weight bags and seal it with waterproof duct tape. Even then it might not hold up to machine washing.

Therapeutic Toys and Tools

What better way to say “I love you” to a tough kid that to offer items that support healing, emotional regulation, and connection?

How about a “faces of anger” poster, abin full of “mad bombs” (pool noodles cut into 4-5″ pieces), a personalized “calm down kit”, or a homemade Bean Bucket “I Spy” game, or even some super hero costumes?

I promise kids don’t have to be little to appreciate dressing up like Superman. Our very favorite, though, is “The Incredible Hulk”.  Seriously, check that one out. You’ll be glad you did…regardless of how old your kids are.

Never underestimate the power of puppets, too.

Puppets?? Really??  Absoulutely! They’re essential tools for any therapeutic family!

Especially if you get the good quality ones that are clearly identifiable as a human or a specific animal and have moving mouths, puppets will almost always say more than people do. It is amazing how much people of any age will open up and start talking about stuff, even really hard stuff, when a puppet starts the conversation.

Puppets are also fabulous for storytelling, teaching social skills, and problem solving. When you get a good puppet or three or four or five in the mix, conversations and learning take on a whole different feel and they become really fun for everyone (including snarky teens and adults) to use.

Personal Development and Educational Items

Especially for older kids, if there is something they’re showing an interest in, support it and help them develop their talents and skills. Why not feed a brain and help kids learn new things regardless of their age?

Books, audio books, science kits, school supplies, journals, cool looking pencils or gel pens, a non-fiction book of facts about a subject they’re interested in, games that encourage things like hand-eye coordination, sequencing, spelling, or cooperation, flash cards, practice workbooks, colored page overlays (especially if reading is difficult), or sticker books.


If they love to read, get a whole series of novels for them. A microscope, sewing machine, digital camera, dance lessons, a musical instrument, cookbooks, or art supplies can also help encourage positive growth.

Again, not all those items need to be new. A “new to them” camera or instrument where they can learn and practice their budding interest are just as well received and are easier on the wallet (and the emotions) if they decide they don’t want to use it anymore.

Community classes can be found in small towns, both through the school systems and through local stores. Kitchen and grocery stores often teach cooking classes, home improvement stores teach building classes both for kids and adults, craft stores offer project classes.  All of these are fairly inexpensive, if not free!

Make it a project instead of a present!

This is something we’ve done a lot, especially over the past few years. We’ve done everything from finishing a bathroom to redecorating bedrooms to upgrading the family entertainment area. This year, it’s new beds! It’s all good!

Our motto has become “If you can’t make it fun, at least make it funny!” Some of our best memories have been born out of this. Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity to turn really boring stuff like grout, paint, sandpaper, and even a new toilet into something everyone will remember for the rest of their lives. Don’t believe me? Click on that link above and read about the most boring Christmas ever that we all still laugh about!

Items Focused on Permanency, Connection, and Healing

This is my most favorite section! It is so vital for our kids to know they belong in our family forever. My kids may not take care of anything else they are given, but these types of things have usually been a hit and properly cared for and cherished for many years…especially when they know they’re sincere and came from the heart

Sentimental items such as photo books (especially the big hard cover ones from places like Mixbook, Snapfish, or even your local photo center), positive affirmation books, personalized wall photos of something they love or even of themselves to hang on the wall (canvas ones are great).


Personalized key chains, items inscribed with a message of  love, memory boxes, time capsules, or even a can of new paint for their bedroom convey that message.


Healing items such as a journal, a CD of soothing music, essential oil diffusers, and participation in fun family activities instead of  “stuff” also go a very long way.

Keep those traditions alive

They may seem silly or unimportant, especially in the face of crisis, but in reality, those tradition are what foster connection and instill a sense of permanency for our kids.

Whether they need them or not, our kids always get a new pair of jammies for Christmas. They’re not a surprise at all. As soon as that package marked “Open Christmas Eve” appears under the tree, they all squeal with delight and declare that “the jammies have arrived!” It makes me smile, especially since my kids aren’t little anymore.

We’re not into the matchy matchy thing, but if you are, all the better! You can never take enough opportunities to foster connection. We have texture and temperature issues at our house. Some like smooth and cool. Others like fuzzy and warm, so we go with what feels good to that person.

One of our other favorite Christmas traditions is our “Story Tree”. Simply put, the decorations on our tree tell the story of our family. Each year each person picks out a new ornament for the tree that represents them or something they’ve been doing that year. My kids look forward to this every year! They love picking out their own ornament, and they love hanging all of their ones from past years on the tree and remembering those good times in our family. We’ve been doing this for many years now and our tree is now very full. Part of the fun now is finding a spot to hang all those precious memories. We love it!

Not all traditions need to be serious or even conventional either. Sometimes they can be practical or just plain silly.

Not ready to give up the traditional Christmas stockings yet, but don’t like all the traditional trinkets that come with them?  Fill them with practical stuff instead. Large bottles of shampoo and hand lotion make great stocking stuffers. So do gloves, ski hats, and scarves.

Or, you can do what we do and include a beautifully gift wrapped package of new underwear…just because it’s practical, useful, and funny. And, of course, it fills up most of the stocking.

This is actually one of our favorite things we’ve been doing for many years. Just like the jammies, they’re not a surprise. In fact, we’ve even heard things like “It’s Christmas morning!! Let’s go open our underwear!”

So what about those gifts that come from other people?

Oh, boy. These types of gifts can be a real challenge to deal with! Grandparents, relatives, friends, and neighbors may be well meaning, but those kind and generous things they want to do don’t always work for our kids or our family. Most of them have no idea what our lives our really like and those wonderful things they do are often way too much, too triggering, or simply not appropriate for our situation.

So what do we do about it?

First of all, set limits. If Grandma wants to do something, great. She can do one parent approved gift. If the neighbors feel the need to do something, you are in charge and get to decide how to handle it. Regardless of the situation, it’s important to remember we still have choices and we still have options.

Especially when our kids were younger, and even sometimes now when it comes to things like gift cards and cash, we found it worked MUCH better if the gifts were given to us and then we gave them to the kids and let them know who they were from. Otherwise, people aren’t allowed to give any kind of gift or treat to our kids and our kids know it.

With gift cards and cash, we usually hold onto them until it’s time to go to the store and spend them. We also have them make out a list of things they want that are under their budget and remind them that any overages, including tax, come out of their savings or allowance money.

When other stuff is randomly gifted to us, we can graciously accept the stuff and save it for the future (and try not to forget about it like I usually do.) We can smile sweetly and then donate it to charity later on. We can offer alternative ideas to these well meaning people who love us and let them know ahead of the event what a better fit for our child or our family,

Or, we can simply say “No, thank you. We’ve got this and we’re good. We love you for thinking of us, but our kids really struggle with gift and “stuff” and it’s best if we keep things very simple for the time being.” Yes, we really, we can say stuff like that.

If someone still really wants to do something for your family and they’re not willing to take no for an answer, consider yourself loved. Then speak up, thank them graciously for their thoughtfulness, and let them know what you really need.

Perhaps a date night for mom and dad (babysitting included) is more appropriate and appreciated than a toy for the child. What about a gift card for appropriate family entertainment, or maid service, or some of those fancy pre-prepped meals that get delivered to your door….or better yet, how something that supports you as a person and a parent.

None of us get nearly enough of that!

In all that gift giving, please don’t forget about yourself!

One of the most powerful gifts you will ever give your entire family is the gift of healing for yourself. You don’t have to resign yourself to living a life of chaotic darkness. There really is a way out!

So, what do you need for you? What do you need for release, relaxation, support, and healing for yourself?

How about a massage…or better yet, a monthly service plan to keep that gift alive? How about some parent coaching, a women’s retreat, or admission a conference you’ve been wanting to attend?

These are all fantastic gifts that will keep on giving to you and your entire family for years to come. They are also all things you can let your spouse, friends, and family know you need. Let’s be real, here too. These things aren’t just a want. They ARE a very real need for so many of us.

A gift certificate for pre-paid parent coaching might not be as flashy as a new iPad, but imagine the tears of gratitude and joy that would be shed if  that was the gift offered by your spouse or other family members and friends!

Now it’s your turn

What works for you and your family? Leave a comment and us know! I love sharing ideas!! After all, there’s always birthdays and next Christmas to plan for once we get through this one!


I’m Diana....wife, mom to 3 awesome (but also very challenging) kids, and a certified professional parent and family coach. I have a passion for helping hurting parents of extremely challenging kids find their way out of darkness and chaos and learn to live again. Many parents I work with have children affected by developmental trauma and struggle with issues such as RAD, PTSD, OCD, ODD, mood disorders, FASD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other forms of mental illness. This journey doesn't have to destroy you. I found my way out and would love to help you do the same.

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