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Tips for Parents: How to Handle Awkward Birthday Party Situations

Here's help in handling the trickiest birthday party conundrums, including divorced parents; birthdays for twins and multiples, adopted children, and those that fall on holidays; and summer birthdays.

kids birthday

When I was about 4-and-a-half years old, my sister was born. At the time I was old enough to feel appreciative of my only-child status, which meant I was also old enough to feel the burn of my parents' newly placed focus when my sister arrived on the scene. As I watched our entire network of friends and family shower the new baby with gifts, my dad remembered that older sisters deserve a little placating for putting up with their competition, and handed me my own gift - my very first Ken doll.

My sibling's subsequent birthdays, however, presented opportunities for me to be not-quite-so-gracious - sisterly moments I am less proud of. For her second birthday my parents threw a simple party. But what I remember most from that day was the distinct impression that all wasn't right in the world (my world) - so instead of acting happy for my sister on her big day, I cried my eyes out beside her.

Although my parents must have felt monumentally awkward and unsure of what to do, there was simply no reasoning with me. (Did I mention I was not quite 5?) It took some work on my end to quit feeling like yesterday's cake (pun intended) whenever my sister's birthdays rolled around; but I finally realized it would be rude to spoil things with tears.

It's easy to get caught up in planning the details of your child's birthday party (cake, theme, activities, the whole shebang), so sometimes the finer points of diplomacy fall off the radar. And there are certainly instances where diplomacy is the order of the day. Here, we offer help for navigating some of the more awkward encounters.


Minimize the awkwardness of your adopted child's birthday.

Perhaps one of the most delicate birthday scenarios is how to celebrate an adopted child's birthday. During this time, adopted children may feel a surge of conflicted emotions regarding where they come from and how they feel about their birth parents. In the case of open adoptions, these mixed-up feelings can be particularly difficult for children to deal with. 

"The most important thing is to let the child lead, because every child experiences adoption differently," says Sally Bacchetta, adoptive parent and author of What I Want My Adopted Child to Know: An Adopted Parent's Perspective. "Some children will want to include their birth parents in the celebration, or sometimes they won't want to involve their birth parents at all. It depends on the openness of the relationship. You could have your child write a letter or draw a picture and send it to their birth parents, or call them on their birthday."

Bacchetta says that most of the time, adopted children won't come to their adoptive parents with their emotions because they don't want to hurt their feelings. "Talk to your child a few days before their birthday and let them know that it's okay for them to incorporate their biological parents into the celebration however they want. Let the child take ownership of their birthday."

Above all, Bacchetta asks that parents "suspend their expectations for the day. A lot of the time I'll see adoptive parents plan huge celebrations for their child's birthday, only to be disappointed when their child acts moody and upset. Often the children don't understand their own emotions. It's important for parents not to take their children's emotions personally. Keep that in mind and understand that it's part of the child's journey."


Plan ahead for smooth summer birthdays.

Sure, July and August birthdays are fabulous for pool parties and running around outdoors, but there can be a nagging feeling of missing out on something during the school year. Krista Njapa, a New York City mom and founder of the website, thinks they are a great chance to get creative. "Remember: A lot of parents are in the same boat as you are in the summer - trying to figure out how to socialize their kids while school is out," she says. "I recommend handing out a 'Save the Date' to your child's school friends the last week of school. Ask the parents to email you, so that you can send further details. Now they have something to look forward to over the summer!" And if your child complains of missing the bring-cupcakes-to-class tradition, talk to his teacher about having a pre-birthday celebration and bring in cupcakes then, Njapa suggests.


Avoid conflict when parents are divorced.

Let's face it: It's rare that divorced parents will act as amicable as say, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. But it's important to put your children first, especially when they're the star attraction (like at their birthday party).

One of the key decisions is who to include on the invite list - notably, should both parents be present? Nyack-based psychologist Dr. Steven Lee says it depends on a couple of factors.

First, how do you think your child would feel seeing the two of you together? "Depending on how recent the divorce was, there may be potential fallout from having both parents present. It may rekindle hopes for reconciliation," Dr. Lee says. It's generally helpful to have regular talks, he suggests, so you can be attuned to your child's emotional state. "If they have questions, try to answer them. Talking won't create a problem. It will likely uncover one."

Second, do you think it's possible for the two of you to keep the peace? If arguments are sure to flair up, don't even go there. Instead, "do your best to help your child feel a sense of unified support for the celebration," offers Dr. Lee. "This could mean the child doing something special with the non-attending parent - probably a smaller event, so as not to compete with the main event."

In either case, Dr. Lee recommends not having your new date or recent main squeeze attend the party; it's all about the birthday boy or girl!


Double the fun on twins' big day.

How "twin-identified" is your twosome? Some may cherish having their birthday parties together, and some might want very distinct celebrations. "Go to the source," advises Dr. Lee. "If they are younger or have difficulty generating ideas or deciding, give them some options to weigh in on."

If it's a dual bash, Dr. Lee points to as a source for some inspired ideas, including choosing themes that have plenty to draw from and can provide your kids with characters for each to identify with, such as Star Wars or Sesame Street. Opposites are also a good idea, he says. "Two cakes might have opposing color schemes, for instance - chocolate-and-vanilla, vanilla-and-chocolate. Having each twin sit at the head of separate tables or at opposite ends of one large table will give both children equal importance."

Brooklyn resident Pam Lehrman, 23, has always shared a birthday with her twin brother Paul. "We'd each get a different party," she says. "If we wanted to have our friends over for our birthdays, we'd do it on different nights. But we were also always together. There wasn't any favoritism. The only time I ever really felt upset was when I didn't get a 'Sweet Sixteen' because of Paul - he didn't want one." Note to parents: In that case, consider throwing one classic milestone party for one sib and an intimate dinner gathering for the other.


Declare a separate-but-equal celebration for holiday birthdays.

It's a given that children with birthdays falling around Christmas or New Year's might feel like their birthdays get overlooked amidst the holiday revelry. Schedule any party far enough in advance that you'll give invitees ample time to plan on making it (December in particular can be a time of party overload!). "Talk to the people you care about to find out what they might already have going on" and schedule around that, suggests Njapa.

Within the family, find other ways to make the special day even more special for the birthday child. "In our house, the birthday girls get woken up to a cupcake, crown, and a wand. We also never combine the birthday party with the holiday celebration - for those couple of hours, it is all about them."

Also see: A Parents' Guide to Birthday Parties

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