Lockdown Birthday? How to help your kids avoid the let-down

By Dr Sandi Mann - Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire.

It’s that one day of the year that’s all about you. Nothing compares – not even Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid or Diwali, which are of course, communal celebrations. Birthdays are the one annual time when the parties, friends and presents are all there for you and you alone. So, when your big day falls in the midst of a pandemic, it can be pretty disheartening for anyone – but so much more so for children.

Birthdays are a huge deal for children of course – so the prospect of a lockdown or COVID 19-restricted birthday is unlikely to fill them with cheer. They don’t have many ‘big days’ under their belt yet and have probably been planning this one since the moment the candles were blown out on the last one. A year is an awfully long time for a young person to have to wait to do it ‘properly’.

So how can we help our children cope with the let-down that lockdown birthdays can bring?

1. It’s all about perspective

Lockdown birthdays can be amazing – if viewed differently. ‘Cognitive Reframing’ is a psychological technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that is about seeing things from a different perspective – often about turning negatives into positives by looking at the world from another viewpoint.

A good way to help your child to do this is to ask them to take a photo of a scene. As they frame their image, ask them what they see. Then ask them to change the frame slightly – to see the scene from a different perspective e.g. higher up, closer up or by turning a little. Compare the two pictures and use this as a metaphor for how it is possible to see the same scene differently, depending on your perspective.

Relate this to their lockdown birthday by asking them how they can see the occasion differently. For example, instead of your child viewing a lockdown birthday as a negative, or from the perspective of loss – help them to see that this is in fact, the most special of birthdays – one for the history books. With a bit of creativity, and a different perspective, this could be viewed as the mother of all birthdays.

2. It’s not personal

It’s easy for your child to feel hard done to if their celebrations are curbed more than their friends. Lockdown restrictions have been erratic and changeable since March, with some people able to celebrate special events with six people inside, some with six outside – and some with none at all outside their bubble. It is important that we help children appreciate that if they are more severely affected, this is not personal. We must try to ensure they don’t start viewing themselves as unlucky people, who might internalise core beliefs such as ‘bad things always happen to me’.

Do this by helping them collect evidence of other people their age who have had birthdays in lockdown. But also point out the times that they have been lucky too. Ask them to note examples of when luck is on their side by keeping a journal of when ‘Lady Luck’ lands at their door; this will help prevent those negative core beliefs developing that could be so damaging in the future.

3. Don’t promise a future blow-out to compensate

This isn’t a day of less but of more. If we promise them something big to compensate later, we risk colluding with them into believing that a lockdown birthday is second-best. In actual fact, there are so many creative and exciting ways to make this the best birthday ever – but if we let them feel that it is a ‘make do’ before the real event, not only will they not enjoy it as much, but they will see themselves as victims more.

In offering a glittering prize later on, we also risk setting them up for disappointment – and us for failure. After all, who knows when ‘later’ might be? Even a few weeks is a long time in a child’s life, so anything more than that, when the pandemic might be over, is an age to them. Dangling the promise of a better tomorrow that might end up a long time coming is hard enough for adults to absorb, but for children, it can simply make them feel lost. Better to focus on the here and now and make the day as wonderful as possible.

4. Develop creativity and resilience

Lockdown birthdays are a great way to develop creativity and foster resilience in our children, so don’t waste the opportunity! Tell your children that this is the one chance they get to do things differently for their ‘big day’ – they can do the same old, same old next year (we hope,) but for now, there is a real chance to let their creativity and individuality shine through.

Help your kids come up with fun ideas for their own and other family members’ birthdays. Show them that you are excited about doing things differently and that barriers are simply ways to force us to think differently. Encourage them to scour the internet for themes and ideas that are COVID-19 secure - and make the search part of the process by having little treats or special meals before or after sitting down with the laptop. Keep reminding them that you are problem-solving and thinking ‘out of the box’ so that they see these skills as positive and rewarding processes.

5. Forget the pity

If children with lockdown birthdays feel hard done by, they will see themselves as victims – and this is a mindset that can stick. So, don’t allow others to pity them for having a more restricted big day. Encourage family and friends to be positive about the event. More importantly, broaden their perspective so that you help them to focus on what they have rather than what they don’t have.

A good way to do this is to focus part of their day, or the run up to it, on a good deed mission. Making cupcakes for lonely neighbours, gathering supplies for a food bank, putting nice notes on car windscreens or making cards to send to residential homes can be great birthday activities that prevent any self-pity, by turning the focus outwards onto those less fortunate. Of course, make sure they get their treats too – the acts of kindness should be an addition to subtly remind them that they are not to be pitied; after all, we can only help others because we have the means to do so.

So, a lockdown birthday need not be a let-down birthday at all. With a positive attitude, forward planning and time investment, you can make this one the best birthday ever!

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