Because of the coronavirus, many kids have had to (or will have to) celebrate events like birthdays and graduations virtually. Parents may feel nervous about piling on yet another disappointment in an already disappointing year and prefer to avoid talking about a “disappointing birthday.” BUT, children and teens do best when they know what to expect and at this point most have realized that the pandemic has changed the way we do pretty much everything. Here’s how to talk to your child about what their birthday will look like this year, along with some ideas for alternative celebrations.

Talking to your child about a pandemic birthday celebration

It’s important to discuss birthday celebrations ahead of time because a birthday looking different this year will be more disappointing if your child spent weeks creating and looking forward to a plan that is not workable. If your family slowly starts planning ways that your child’s birthday will be special this year, you can create a fun and exciting event that your child will look forward to.

For older kids (elementary school and up), you can start talking about birthday plans as soon as they bring it up, or up to 2 months in advance. Younger kids have less of a concept of time, so you can wait until a few weeks before the birthday before discussing it. Whatever the timeline, make sure you emphasize that you don’t know what restrictions will be in place in the future so plans may have to change. Be sure to encourage flexibility and brainstorming multiple ideas: “That’s a really creative and fun idea. That may be able to work. We will have to wait until closer to decide.”

As always, try to frame this year’s unusual birthday as a positive — a chance to think of different special ways to celebrate. When deciding what type of celebration to have, consider your family members’ medical risk factors and how comfortable you are with different levels of interaction with people outside your home. Make it clear to your child which things the family feels safe doing and which things will have to wait until the pandemic is over.

Be sure to set expectations about what size group will be present during the celebration. It’s always best to err on the side of caution and have fewer kids. Keep in mind if adult chaperones will need to be included in your total numbers. It’s also important to make sure the expectations for in-person guests are clear. Tell parents to make sure their kids go to the bathroom before they come, explain what supplies they should bring and give them a definite start and end time.

Ideas for celebrating birthdays during the pandemic

Kids are amazingly adaptable and can come up with some creative ideas for celebrating their birthdays. You want them to feel special and celebrated on their birthday and there’s lots of different ways to do that.

Virtual birthday party ideas

Some kids are still enjoying Zoom birthday parties and being able to see their friends from different places.

  • Let your child be the host. Put a spin on your Zoom party by letting your child “host” the Zoom and be in charge of muting people and sharing the screen like their teachers normally do. Kids like to be in charge.
  • Play games. Zoom parties are great for playing games, which can also add structure to the call. Charades, Pictionary or Trivia games all work well.
  • Teach the kids to do a shared craft project or follow an online video for drawing their favorite characters. Pick a craft that aligns with your theme or your child’s interests.
  • Visit with guests beforehand to drop off goodies. Drop crafts and cupcakes off at partygoers’ houses beforehand, so everyone can craft and eat together on the Zoom. The guests will enjoy getting to work on the same craft project and enjoy the same treats during the party. Your child will enjoy the chance to have a distanced visit with their friends during the drop-off, even if it’s just a quick wave through the window.
  • Multiple Zooms. Some kids will enjoy getting to schedule multiple Zoom calls with different friend groups and family members. Have a planned game or presentation (each guest can show a happy birthday sign or card), sing “happy birthday” and have a short chat. Keep the calls short so they are engaging.

In-person birthday party ideas

If you’re planning on an in-person party, keep it small and outside, if possible. Remind all guests that masks are required. Ideas for outdoor parties include:

  • Scavenger hunts
  • Socially distanced picnics
  • Roasting marshmallows outside in a firepit
  • Watching a movie outside with individually wrapped snacks (set up distanced blankets and mark each child’s spot with a balloon to make it festive)
  • Playing carnival games like ring tosses or knocking over cans
  • Doing arts and crafts with separate kits
  • For a two-part party, send the guests home with cupcakes to eat together over Zoom later in the afternoon

Alternate celebration ideas

  • Fun Experience: Another alternative is offering a fun experience for your child instead of a birthday party, like a day trip to a place you’ve always been meaning to go, or activity you’ve been meaning to do. Kids may enjoy a family hiking trip, backyard camping or visiting a national park.
  • Have a “Yes Day!”: Set the limits (screen time, number of treats) and let your child set the agenda with a “yes day.” Kids and teens alike enjoy a day with more flexibility.
  • Family Fun Day: What does your child enjoy doing? It may be something they have trouble recruiting other family members to join – playing board games, baking, building Legos, long bike rides, painting…plan a family day with everyone doing the birthday person’s favorite activity.

However you celebrate, just be sure to do it safely – and help your child feel special for the day!


Laura GrayLaura Gray, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Children's National Hospital.

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