For busy parents, it seems someone’s birthday is always just around the corner. But even after you shop and scheme, the big day comes — and the birthday blues tag along. If melancholy moods are the regular rhythm at your house, try a new approach to help banish the blues for good.
Keep It Sane
“Keep the expectations low from the beginning,” says parenting expert and author Michele Borba, PhD, whose newest book Unselfie comes out in June. “We parents are often the ones that hype it by saying, ‘It’s your birthday! What do you want? Who will come?’” Too many questions often create a vision that doesn’t match reality. “Remember, you want to set the expectation and let them move higher, not lower, from there,” Borba says.
One sure way to keep the big day sane is by being cautious of the comparison game. “My kids often psych themselves up for disappointment after seeing the gifts their friends get,” says Collierville mom Kelly Riley, mother of six. “As they get older, it’s challenging because I feel like I have to prep them for the letdown when we just can’t top that expensive jacket or tickets to see Justin Bieber in Nashville.” Save the sanity by setting limits: Just as you wouldn’t let your kids choose whatever car or college they want, birthdays also require some boundaries.
Riley admits to caving at times and buying something out of guilt after the big letdown. “They see videos on Instagram of friends crying after opening an amazing present, yet they really don’t even know what to ask for to achieve that reaction,” she says.
Where should parents draw the line? “Don’t wait until the actual day to communicate if you think the expectation is too high,” says Borba, who encourages parents to remember that when birthday blues take over, self-absorption is usually the culprit. “Self-absorption is a bottomless pit reinforced by social media,” she says, emphasizing kids don’t always need the best, most expensive gift. “Celebrate the child, but in the end it is critical for kids to learn that sometimes you have less and sometimes you have more. Teaching kids to be content with what they have is a good thing.”
Along with high expectations, parents should watch out for other robbers that exasperate the downers. “Lots of kids have a tough time with regulating their emotions anyway,” Borba says, “and lack of sleep, being out of the normal routine, and sugar overload can combine to bring on the blues in full force.” Instead, keep things on an even keel until the party time arrives.
Make It Special
Traditions go a long way toward keeping the blues at bay. One activity we keep alive at our house is the “What I Like About You” tradition, where family gathers around as each member, gives a gift, and then tells their favorite thing about the birthday kid. As a mom of 10, I have learned even my very youngest anticipate receiving this affirmation. Last year I blew it off, thinking my 4-year-old daughter was too young to get it. When she proceeded to tell us what she liked about grandma after opening her gift, I realized she was already embracing our family tradition.
“Even the simplest traditions create lifelong memories for making kids feel special on their big day,” concurs Borba. Activities like marking the calendar, hanging a banner, and getting a cake all affirm the child independently of presents or parties and send the same message: I celebrate YOU.
While parties are often the go-to plan, these can become more meaningful when there isn’t a party every year. One mom I know reserves parties for milestone years: 5, 10, 13, 16, and 18. Another mom is a champ at theme parties and has riffed on everything from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to the TV show, “The Amazing Race.”
But celebrations can take all forms. After the birth of my sixth child, I dumped a bag of powdered doughnuts onto a plate and stuck a candle in the top for my 2-year-old’s birthday. I remember feeling guilty for not having the energy to do more, but much to my surprise, my daughter talked about her “doughnut cake” for weeks. She felt celebrated and special and that’s all that matters.
The birthday blues can be a downer for everyone, but with some boundaries, a few traditions, and plenty of love, kids will start singing a different tune.
What keeps the happy in birthday? My crew weighs in:
I'm a big fan of a small gift or outing that shows someone knows me. — Robert, 28
Gathering around the dinner table, having my favorite yummy dinner, and the “What I Like About You” tradition. — Bethany, 26
Swimming in a river or eating chocolate ice cream. It’s hard to be unhappy when you have chocolate ice cream. — Matthew, 23
Sharing it with people I love, food I enjoy, and gifts that are well thought out. — Ben, 20
Doing something memorable with the family. — Mary, 18
Mom making my favorite meal. — Emma, 17
A big game of family football. — Cory, 15
Everybody being positive. — Dorothy, 12
Getting what I want. — Silas, 9
Eating sandwiches, then everyone goes to sleep and blows you a kiss. — Hope, 4