When Birthdays Aren’t Happy

J avi birthday

Today is Avi’s birthday – thirteen!

This boy has wanted to be a teenager since the day we met him – so, finally!

Avi arrived home just a month before a family rush of birthdays – 4 in a row.  This was too much for him – birthday after birthday, and none for him.  He didn’t have enough language or experience in our culture to be reassured that his own birthday was only a few months away.  So although he came home already four years old, we snuck in a “4” birthday party for him just a couple of months before he turned “5.”  That was our first birthday coping plan.  That is him above “turning 4!”

And since then, birthdays have not been easy for Avi.  They are loaded with expectation, want, disappointment, and even entitlement.  Many children who have experienced neglect and poverty experience a sense of never feeling satisfied, content, or at ease.

For Avi, this translates into a deep desire for “stuff” – cool stuff, new stuff, flashy stuff. It has been this way since his first weeks home.  And when a new toy, possession, or experience inevitably fails to fill that place, Avi turns his disappointment toward us.  We have disappointed him.

In his mind, different parents would give him more, would give him better, would somehow meet that deep place of need and want.

We have also struggled with some of Avi’s “wants” not fitting within our boundaries or decisions as parents for what is appropriate.  It can feel like a no-win situation all around.

So birthdays are loaded with a lot of family and relational stress.  We learned early on that putting some plans and boundaries in place would help everyone.  Over the years, here are a few of the strategies we have used that have been somewhat successful:

  • We don’t talk about our birthday on someone else’s birthday.  (this was put in place to protect the other children from having their birthday overshadowed by a sibling perseverating on their own wants and to help teach self control and putting others first – we have used it with all of our kids)
  • We don’t talk about our birthday wants until the month of our birthday. (this was put in place to protect me from a constant stream of wants)
  • Make a birthday list of three things you really want.  We will choose something from that list for you.
  • We would normally spend $____ for your birthday present.  Would you rather have the money and choose what you want to buy with it?
  • We will tell you ahead of time what your present is.  No surprises.  No unmet expectations.

All of these have worked to some degree – they have been valves that have relieved some of the pressure that builds up as a birthday approaches.

To be honest, I breathe a sigh of relief once the day has passed.  It is simply one of those things that is “different” about parenting a child with this particular personality and history.

Today is Avi’s tenth birthday in our family (including the “4” birthday above).  This year, Greg and I decided together on something we knew Avi would really enjoy and that will be a complete surprise to him.  This is the first time we have tried this in quite a few years – we will see how it goes!

with hope and gratitude,
signature J and Avi

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  1. Angela
    June 20, 2016

    We adopted twins 6 yrs ago… They turned 12 this year. The one twin was happy, thankful, peaceful, and enjoying his birthday as it came.. It shows the healing and progress we are beginning to see and enjoy in him. The other was unhappy, greedy, disappointed, ungrateful, and so so selfish. She was mad that she had to move to blow out the candles next to her brother and the pictures are classic!!! After opening her presents instead of thanking people she exclaimed, “that’s it?!!?”. Which was hilarious since she got what she wanted (except the iPad that we had clearly let her know was not happening.) if I had my way we would skip her birthday next time. Ha! Okay, instead I’ll follow your directions.

    1. Dana
      June 20, 2016

      This could have been written by our family except the roles are reversed. Twin Daughter is happy and content, twin son is exactly as you and Jennifer described. We stopped having friend parties at age 10 with our other kids and so glad as it has, like Shar commented, minimized the collateral damage. He has largely stopped actively family shopping but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t blame us for not providing what he thinks he ‘needs’. And which never satisfies if he does receive it.

      Will try the no surprises route. Or cash.

  2. Shar McMinn
    June 20, 2016

    With 5 adopted kiddos after 6 bio I totally get this and agree. We also only do family parties without friends. It minimizes the meltdown collateral damage

  3. AmyE
    June 20, 2016

    Could have substituted my child’s name in this post. Have tried most of your suggestions including no surprises. Have never been successful with not talking about his birthday almost every single day. He starts after Christmas. Birthday is in August. I have told him I won’t respond when he talks about before school is out. Only slows it down a little. 😀 He always wants something out of our price range. Thinking of trying giving him cash this year. Though I already know it won’t be enough. Sigh. Birthdays are just hard!

  4. Jennifer
    June 20, 2016

    I’m so relieved to hear my girls aren’t the only ones! Birthdays are a great chance to remind that “Jesus is better than everything, even than birthdays.” I have the same struggle as they do in my heart, but over other things and I’m better at hiding it. Which makes me think that with Jesus, they will grow in this area.


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