The Dreaded Birthday Party
If you’re parenting a child with sensory issues, there’s a good chance that birthday parties and social gatherings are not your favorite things. Especially if your child is a sensory-avoider, like mine.
Sure they're supposed to be fun and enjoyable events, but they can quickly turn into an overwhelming and dysregulating nightmare for a child with sensory issues.
When my son was a young toddler, I came to expect he’d have little interaction with the other children at birthday parties. Bounce House? Piñata? Cake? Nope, he wasn’t having any of it (I know! What child doesn’t love cake?).
He was terrified of bounce houses, refused to eat at the table with the other kids, and began to scream like he was being tortured when kids started hammering away at the piñata. Birthdays weren’t the greatest for us to say the least. Sigh.
In the beginning, this was hard for me to accept. I’d often find myself in tears after the party was over. I’d look at the other children running around, laughing, playing together, and having fun. Then I’d see my child who was either playing by himself, having a sensory-induced meltdown, or clinging to my leg with a panicked look on his face. I couldn’t help but feel an intense amount of worry and sadness.
I’d start going down the rabbit hole of anxious thoughts--is my son ever going to have friends? Why can’t he enjoy normal kid things? What are the other parents thinking? I wish he could just be like the other kids.
The next week, I’d arrive at his OT session needing my own therapy. I’d ask his OT a million questions, desperately searching for reassurance that my son would be ok.
After attending a few birthday parties and having the same upsetting experience over and over again, I had a breakthrough. I realized that I had to let go of my expectations around my son’s experience at birthday parties, and I had to accept — even embrace — the challenges he was facing.
Instead of seeing every birthday party as the “dreaded birthday party,” I decided to start seeing them as opportunities to better attune to and support my son. I’d give him an experience that fostered social and emotional growth.
With this new mindset, I started to employ some birthday party preparation tactics.
I’d already been telling my son about the party we were going to attend. Where it would be, who would be there, and what to expect. But I started to dial it up a notch.
As soon as we would get an invite, I would show it to my son. Instead of telling him all the details, I started asking him questions.
Who do you think will be at the party? What kinds of things do you think you'll do at the party? Do you think there will be cake? What kind? What about a piñata? If you see the kids hitting the piñata and you start to feel upset, what can you do?
We’d take our recon to the next level by using Google maps to check out the location. Then at night, we’d make up bedtime songs about the party. Each day leading up to the event, we’d have little conversations about it — even come up with plans for what to do if he started to feel overwhelmed. I assured him that anytime he wanted to, we could leave. All of these things empowered him to be his best come party time.
Now, I’m not going to say that from then on, parties became a blast. But, little by little, they started to become more enjoyable — for all of us.
Rather than focusing on what my son wasn’t doing, I started noticing and taking joy in the small victories.
He peeked inside the bounce house!
He sat down and ate with the other kids!
He didn’t cry when they did the piñata!
He was able to come tell me when he wanted to leave!
We both felt the experience shift from dreaded to welcomed.
My son turns seven this summer, and he’s come a long way. Now we look forward to birthday parties. He plays with the other kids, eats the food they serve (even the cake!), laughs and has a great time.
At a recent party, as I watched him running around laughing with the other kids, my eyes filled with tears. But this time they were tears of joy- I'm so grateful for how much progress he's made. If you’re at the beginning of your journey with a child with SPD, know that it will get better. I promise.
Are birthday parties/ gatherings anything but festive for your sensory-sensitive child? What's been the most difficult thing about them- for your child and for you? Leave your comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.
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