If you’re the parent of a toddler or preschooler at another child’s birthday party, you might find yourself saying:
Hands to yourself, that’s not your present.
She doesn’t need help unwrapping, sweetie.
He gets to go first; it’s his special day.
Other children’s birthdays can be challenging for young children, who may struggle when special attention is being paid to a sibling or friend and not them.
“They’re just learning how to share, and what belongs to them and what doesn’t,” says Dr. Maria Shaheen, senior director of education for Primrose Schools®. “It’s developmentally appropriate for children this age to have challenges as they learn to take turns being the center of attention.”
So don’t wince too hard when your little one cries because they had to wait for a piece of cake — learning that it’s not always about them is part of growing up. In the meantime, try these strategies for celebrating other children’s birthdays with more fun and fewer hard feelings.
1. Prepare in advance.
Talk to your child about what will happen at the birthday party. Explain why we celebrate birthdays and focus on friendship rather than presents. Shaheen suggests this language: “Birthdays are a chance for us to have fun with our friends. We’re bringing a gift to show we appreciate our friend, but we don’t expect a gift in return.”
2. Make homemade birthday cards.
Helping your child work on a birthday card is a great way to get them in the right mindset to celebrate a friend. Even babies can use fingerpaint or make a handprint with a grown-up’s help. Toddlers can draw a picture, and preschoolers might be able to sign their name or dictate a message.
3. Remember that tough feelings are OK (and normal).
Children may have difficult feelings, such as jealousy or sadness, and it’s important they know it’s natural to have upset feelings sometimes, and that they can learn to respond in a positive way, Shaheen says. Parents can help children self-regulate when they’re feeling emotional by stepping away from the party to do something calming, such as taking deep breaths, running around outside or reading a favorite book.
4. Make siblings the “leader” of the party.
Depending on the ages and personalities of your children, you might be able to enlist the child who is not the guest of honor to help decorate, plan the menu, shop for gifts and greet guests. “They will feel included, and you can even thank them at the party for doing so much for their brother or sister,” Shaheen says.
5. Don’t overdo it.
Birthday parties are chock-full of stimuli for children — presents, sugar, music, decorations, bounce houses! You know your child best and can set reasonable expectations. Your 2-year-old might not be able to make it through a three-hour party without a meltdown. Plan your visit for a shorter time frame or plan to give your child some space and quiet as needed.
And when it’s your child’s birthday, Shaheen recommends keeping things low-key. Children don’t need an impressive venue, special performances or social media-worthy treats. They just want to play with their friends and celebrate life — that’s what a birthday is all about.
For more on social-emotional development, check out:
- 5 Calming Techniques to Help Children Work Through Big Feelings
- Teaching Children Courage, in the Classroom and at Home
- 4 Ways to Raise a Good Friend
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