Lessons for Moms on How to Celebrate Your Adopted Teen’s Birthday

From the middle of June to the middle of July my family celebrates three birthdays. At least we try to.

My daughters have their birthdays on either side of mine–yes, it’s a lot of dessert. But whereas I prefer a simple birthday, theirs are anything but. In fact, their birthdays almost always lead to disappointment and frustration–for everyone.

I wrote about this 3 years ago, when they were just entering adolescence. I have to confess, it’s not gotten any easier.

And that’s to be expected. Because for adoptees, birthdays are not easy. No matter what we do for their birthdays, it can never be enough. No matter what gifts we get them, it’s not what they really want.

What they want is their birth mom.

Sherrie Eldridge explains why in her book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. For the adopted child a birthday is also a loss day and serves as a trigger, reminding him of that loss. Thoughts of their birth mothers move front and center to their mind: “Is she thinking about me today?” In addition, society’s romantic views of adoption, and birthday celebrations, weigh heavily on their minds. Be happy. Be grateful you have a family, don’t disappoint your parents.

When my girls were younger, glittery pink gift bags, balloons, cake and friends to eat it with were enough to fill the hole they didn’t know they had in their hearts. But as they entered the adolescent years, they became more aware of their primal ache. Gifts were requested and bought, celebrations were held, but they never measured up. Expectations raised came crashing down, for everyone. I couldn’t get it right. As a mom, I felt like I had failed them again.

But I had no chance of winning.

So, here’s what I’m learning about helping my adopted teenage daughters navigate their birthdays. Because that’s really what it is, navigating a torrent of feelings and emotions.

1. Accept from the start that you’re not going to get it right. Finding the balance between celebrating and navigating their birthday is like trying to hit a shifting target–you’re unlikely to make a bullseye.

2. Be alert to comments they make in the weeks/days leading up to their birthday. What you may take as a passing thought or comment is likely something much more significant. Just because they only mentioned it once, doesn’t mean it’s not important to them. Don’t be afraid to revisit that comment with them. Ask them how important it is to them, what you can do to make it happen. Be realistic with them and don’t give them false hope. Tell them you can’t afford to get them a car, or that no matter how much you want it for them, a letter from their birth mom is not likely to show up in the mailbox.

3.  Put aside what you want to do for them, and ask them what it is they want.  Listen, really listen to what they ask for.

Does “Belgian waffles for breakfast” mean a special trip to the grocery store to buy REAL Belgian waffles and all the toppings, or does it mean dragging up the waffle iron from the basement storage and MAKING waffles at home?  (Yup, missed that one.)

4. Don’t second guess their requests. If they say one thing and you’re thinking something different, something nice(r) to do for them, don’t do it. Whatever you want to do special for them will likely miss the mark, save it for another day. Do what they want, as best as you can.

Note to self: Just because she LOVED the macaroons at a church event a few months ago does not mean that a plate piled high with macaroons is the same as the box-mix strawberry cake with a can of strawberry icing that she’s had for her birthday every single year. And that she asked for. Sigh.

4. Recognize that friendships are hard for teens, maybe more so for adopted teens. Guest lists and party plans can quickly be upended by a single text. Be prepared to go with the flow and don’t ask questions, don’t make comments if so-and-so suddenly isn’t coming. If your teen prefers a smaller celebration, go with that.

5. Realize that birthday celebrations with extended family can be a trigger for adopted teens, especially if no one else in the extended family looks like them. Ask your teen what they’d prefer, if anything at all. A simple BBQ or pizza night with cousins singing Happy Birthday can be just enough, probably even better if it’s not actually on their birthday. If they don’t want any family get-together at all, honor that. It’s not about hurting your in-laws’ feelings, it’s about helping your child get through this difficult day. Explain to your family what your teen is going through, they will understand. Offer alternative ways they can celebrate your teen. A birthday text or a card in the mail lets them know someone is thinking of them without the pressure for them to socialize.

6. Don’t be surprised if they seem clingy or lean towards more childish emotions. If they want to be tucked in, or go over their baby photos, go along with them. You won’t have too many more opportunities to tuck in your child, appreciate it. Give them grace and don’t make comments. They’re not acting childish–they are still children and they’re processing deep emotions.

7. Don’t neglect your family birthday traditions. Just because they can drive and vote now doesn’t mean they no longer want to wake up to balloons, or whatever your family does to celebrate the birthday girl or boy. Keep it going. Everyone likes to feel special on their special day, even if it’s a hard day for them.

8. Remember that while a birthday is just one day on a calendar, the feelings and emotions that surround an adoptee’s birthday begin long before and linger after that day. The day is the apex, the sharp reminder that the one person they want the most isn’t there for them. That kind of ache is too deep for any gift or celebration to fill.

So, do your best to understand you can only do so much. Lower your expectations of yourself, and of their reaction. Love them through this. You’ve got 364 other days in the year to show them how much they mean to you.