The Dreaded Birthday Party
If you’re parenting a child with sensory issues, there’s a good chance that birthday parties are not your favorite thing. Especially if your child is a sensory avoider, like mine. Sure it’s supposed to be a fun and enjoyable event, but it 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 the party. Bounce House? Piñata? Cake? Nope, he wasn’t having any of it. (I know! What child doesn’t love cake?) He was terrified of the Bounce House, 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.
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 session. 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’d ask him to start thinking about the situation by asking questions.
Who do you think will be at the party? What kinds of things might the kids 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 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 four this summer, and he’s come a long way. The last birthday party we went to was a total success. He played with other kids he’d just met, ate the food they served (even the cake!), laughed, and had a great time.
After the party ended, I was in tears again. But this time they were different. I was so grateful for how much progress he has made. If you’re at the beginning of your journey with a child with SPD, know that it will get better. I promise.