It’s big brother Sebastian’s birthday, and three-year-old Callista has been bouncing with excitement as family and friends arrive to celebrate. Then the presents are handed out and as Sebastian unwraps each gift, little sister’s face gets sadder and sadder. Finally she says, “Isn’t there anything for me?” and bursts into tears.
Calgary parent educator Tanya Bartram says Callista’s tears are to be expected. “Preschoolers are naturally egocentric,” she explains, “so they tend to feel put out when someone else is getting all the attention.”
While some jealousy is natural, Bartram says parents shouldn’t excuse or ignore less-than-desirable behaviour at a birthday party. She suggests acknowledging the child’s feelings, and then redirecting her to a more positive activity, such as helping get ready for the next game or marking the date for her own birthday party on the calendar.
“Preschoolers don’t have a good grasp of time, and will have some trouble understanding the idea that their own birthdays will come at a later date,” says Bartram. “You can talk about it in terms of taking turns, which most preschoolers are learning about, and say, ‘This day is your brother’s turn, but on this day’ —marking it on the calendar — ‘it will be your turn.’”
Lisa Cornish, mother of two, takes it a step further. “I talk about the ‘left- out’ child’s birthday in some detail, asking ‘What would you like to do for your party? How do you want your cake decorated?’ That helps the child look forward to his special day.”
Should you buy the “un-birthday” child a gift as well, ready to hand over if the tears start? “The child’s age really dictates how the parents respond,” says Bartram. “The younger the child, the less reasonable he can be expected to be and, for a three-year-old, a small gift may help.”
Expecting the child to “just deal with it” is going to require some preparation, Bartram warns. “It won’t help to expect him to settle down with a hissed reminder that his own birthday is coming up,” she says.
How to plan for a party
Planning, in fact, can go a long way toward reducing the chances of tears and tantrums at the party:
• Let your child plan a surprise for the celebrating sibling, suggests Sarah Dufton, mother of four. “I let my other kids help decorate the cake, or wrap a present or make a card,” she says. “When they are focused on surprising the sibling, they forget that they aren’t getting all the attention.”
• Allow the non-celebrating child to invite a friend. You could also ask a grandparent or other adult your preschooler loves to pay special attention to him during the party.
• If you are giving out goodie bags, make one for the sibling as well.
If the tears start, don’t feel you need to smooth everything over, especially with an older child, say a five-year-old. “A sibling’s birthday can be a good opportunity to teach that sometimes we have to wait for things,” Bartram says. “Parents can acknow-ledge the child’s feelings without giving in to the desires or demands.”
And how does the birthday kid feel?
Bending over backward to include the “un-birthday child” in the celebrations can backfire, warns Calgary parent educator Tanya Bartram. If the younger brother always gets presents at both big sister’s birthday and his own, big sister may start feeling resentful. It’s not fair to her. While you may have to make some accommodations for the youngest preschoolers, the goal should be to encourage siblings to celebrate with the birthday boy or girl without needing an equal share of the limelight.