What might it mean that a child can’t create a birthday list?

Hi all,

Our daughter is going to be 13 soon, and we have been asking her for a while to list some things she would like for her birthday. She hasn’t been a bel to do this, and today when we asked her about this, she says she simply has nothing she can think of.

This certainly isn’t because she has everything, I think she has difficulty imagining potential futures vs reacting to choices that are right in front of her. We would like to work on that if so.

She has a diagnosis for ADHD, but we are wondering if this kind of behavior might indicate something else is going on.

Has anyone else had this kind of experience and have some insights to share?

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I was kind of fascinated by this post because we have a kid who is similar, and has an LD (not ADHD). Does your kid have issues with time? Like, they have a hard time understanding the passing of time? (for example, they may say a movie lasts 25 minutes, or are always late for things). Our kid has something called 'time blindness' or dyschronometria and it's more common in kids with LD. Here's an interesting article about it: Time Blindness and ADHD - Focus: The Online Adult ADHD Magazine (focusmag.uk) We found our kid had a hard time projecting into the future (like, what would you like to do THEN - in the future) similar to what you describe. Hope this might be helpful!

My college-aged child never wanted to provide gift lists either.  I wouldn't worry about it. I don't like giving people gift ideas either.  I like to be surprised.

We have one kid who always has an itemized birthday list, and one who never has anything on their wish list. (Kids are the same gender and close in age.) Interestingly, though, ours are reversed--the itemized list kid is the one who is on the edge of being neuro-diverse and the no-list kid is pretty neuro-typical. For the no-list kid, we usually suggest some experiences and they choose one of those, and seem perfectly content with that. In the past we've done day trips to Santa Cruz, camping weekends, trips to special restaurants, trips to the arcade, and the like. For family gifts we usually suggest they give books they think the child might enjoy, magazine subscriptions, lessons in something, or activity crates. Sometimes they also send restaurant gift certificates, which are popular. For whatever reason, that particular child is just less materially focused. I actually find it refreshing since our older kid often starts the list for the next year the day afterwards!

My daughter is just like this, but she also can't walk in to a store and shop for clothes or anything really without being guided. She's 16 and has ADHD. Her executive functioning is non existent at times. we really started to notice this around puberty. She also has trouble finding things to eat and choosing things to do. 

Hi - I can see how this might be indicative of some kind of neurological issue, but just for another perspective ... My son has always been like this. He's 17 now and he can never think of things he wants for birthdays or Christmas. When he was little he would SEE Lego or something in a store and beg for it, or he'd be at a friend's house and see an ad on TV (we only had Roku, so no toy ads) and beg, but other than that he *never* could make a list or think of a single thing. We are not at all wealthy and he for sure does not have everything. This past Xmas he asked for a new pair of jeans. That was it. He has no learning challenges and is a high achiever academically/sports, so I always just thought he's just not a very acquisitive guy. Parents have to get very creative! I mention this because I have noticed that friends who have kids with some neuro difference often attribute personality quirks to a diagnosable issue, vs just - it's a personality thing. Something you could consider at 13 is giving a bit more allowance and offering ways for her to earn money - and suggest she buys things she wants. We did this with our son and he now will buy things he really wants - like he just bought a surfboard. It focuses them more and they get REALLY proud of their ability to save, plan and make major purchases. When he bought his first pair of skis (first that HE bought, age 15) he was over the moon about the purchase, more than the actual skis. It's a mind shift. 

If this was my child, I would gift her an experience (ie a day at the beach or an amusement park or tickets to a magic show or a musical). There doesn’t seem to me to be any reason to push her to want physical things if she doesn’t feel she needs them. Maybe she really is content with what she has - something most adults in our current society haven’t figured out, so good for her!  👍

My son just turned 12 and he was also completely unable to come up with a list. I can’t speak to ADHD but I wonder if it’s just the age? My son outgrew the obvious gifts like toys and Legos, and even I have trouble thinking of present ideas. What I did was I googled “Gifts for 12 year olds” and also brainstormed a few ideas, and I gave him some suggestions and he chose a gift from MY list. Actually after he saw what I suggested he came up with some good ideas of his own, and we ended up with a gift that was a good fit for him. Funny thing is his relatives also couldn’t think of anything appropriate for a 12 year old boy and also struggled with his present. It’s a difficult age to shop for! A friend of mine has skipped presents altogether for her child; together they pick a charity and they donate to a good cause, so that might be an idea also. 

My daughter and I are both the same way and I don't think it indicates anything abnormal. For us, it's more that things we like tend to be very specific and/or subjective, and it's hard to give someone a category (e.g., "earrings") because it can go so wrong and you don't want to hurt someone's feelings if you don't like what they picked out. Our daughter also just doesn't like acquiring a lot of stuff.

If that doesn't sound like what's going on (i.e., she literally can't think of anything at all), maybe come up with a list of possibilities, including experiential things she might enjoy, and see how she responds. 

Either way, I don't think anything's wrong, or that it's related to ADHD (which our 16-year old daughter has as well). Some people are just not consumer/product oriented, which is really a blessing if that's the case!

What does it mean? In my experience, it means she is content, it is not a flaw or disability related. This describes me my whole teen and adult life, once I moved beyond wanting toys, there was nothing else I really wanted as long as my basic needs were met. It is OK to be content, please let her be confident that not wanting anything is fine. Perhaps ask her to think of an experience or activity, such as kayaking, an escape room, trip to the Monterey Aquarium or Santa Cruz Boardwalk, an A's game, or a special meal and homemade cake, rather than "things."

In our family of four, two of us (including the one with diagnosed ADHD) enjoy birthday lists and two of us do not. (I am one of the latter.) For the two of us who have trouble with birthday lists, I'd say it's some varying combination of not liking to make decisions, feeling guilt around material things, liking to be surprised, feeling awkward around receiving gifts, feeling pressured to come up with something (appropriate) to ask for, etc. I too think it's an interesting question, but I don't know that you can necessarily read anything into your daughter's disinclination to come up with a list.

I have had this issue for years! What we've done is pivoted to experiences, especially with grandparents. A shopping trip where they can find things on the spot, or a play or musical theater. A couple times when they couldn't think of anything we have just contributed to a college fund. It can help also to make a list of their interests, then talk about what items support those interests. Good luck! It can be hard when purchasing without guidance, even for family you know well.

Hi there,

I can only speak from my own experience, but my 13-year-old (who is neurotypical) also can't make a birthday list. In my kid's case, I think it's about just not being as interested in "stuff" as when they were younger and into toys. At this age, social life tends to become so much more important, and interests can change much more quickly, reflecting what's going on with peers. My teen is just interested in hanging out with friends (and shopping with them, looking for fun finds), rather than taking keen interests in more specific things or activities. 

At this point, my kid appreciates getting money or gift cards as presents, so they can go looking for things they might like. They don't even want planned birthday parties anymore; they'd rather just invite friends over to walk to boba and hang out, playing video games.

Hope this is helpful!

I,too, could have written your post.  My daughter, also 13, has never really wanted things (or experiences for that matter) either.  When she was young, I kinda loved it because we could walk through the minefield that is a toy or candy isle unscathed.  But it began to concern me early in elementary school, when for a treat, I took her an her older sister (both avid readers) to a book store.  She could not pick out a single book.  In the meantime her sister selected 3 or 4 that she wanted.  No amount of time or coaxing helped.  Same in a toy store or clothing store.   It honestly really worried me: is it depression, anxiety, family dynamics, something else?  Eventually we had her tested (not because of this) and she too has ADHD inattentive type (although so do I and I've always wanted things and experiences probably to too great an extent) as well as mild depression and moderate anxiety.

I don't really have anything to offer, except that your daughter is not alone.  The upshot of it is that when she does express a want (Japanese food, a Minecraft pick ax, Babbel) as long as it doesn't totally conflict with our family values, we make it happen. 

You said your daughter is about to turn 13. When my kids got into their teens, we started a new birthday tradition that we still practice, and they are in their 30's now: family dinner at the restaurant of their choice (with best friend or significant other), plus a birthday check equal to $10 x how many years old they are. We all enjoy going out for dinner and celebrating together. Our kids sometimes pick a restaurant we've never heard of or wouldn't visit on our own, so it's fun for all.

Teens are so particular about what they like. If they aren't asking for something specific in the weeks before their birthday, just give them cash!

This resonated with me, as someone with inattentive ADHD. Here are some pieces of executive dysfunction that this could be related to: 

1. Difficulty with prioritization and planning in general.  Causes overwhelm, can’t think about how / where to start.

2. Perfectionism and analysis paralysis. Can get caught up in analyzing and overthinking decisions, worried that choosing one could mean choosing wrong.

3. Impaired working memory (how we process / use / remember information on a daily basis) and out of sight, out of mind: If it’s not something I am actively focused on, it is hard for me to recall it.

ADHD presents in different ways and the above may not feel relevant to your teen.  But if it does, then it could be helpful to investigate how ADHD may be affecting her life beyond the pieces that led you to the diagnosis.  Currently it’s a low-stakes birthday, but soon it’ll be picking a college / major / job, and making small + big life decisions on her own without the scaffolding she’s used to.

I had a late-in-life diagnosis, and it’s been a revelation to understand why certain things have consistently felt so hard to me when they looked easy for others… and why that’s not a character flaw.  Good luck!