The Storm Trooper Incident
You know you’re the parent of a sensory avoidant child when the words “you’re invited to a birthday party!” make you cringe. When H was a toddler, every time an invitation to a child’s birthday party arrived in our mailbox, my husband and I were filled with one feeling: Dread. (More on this in The Dreaded Birthday Party). Hoards of kids running around, balloons, bounce houses, pinatas, cake, games… birthday parties are basically a sensory avoider’s worst nightmare!
After many birthday party fails, we finally dialed in on a pre-birthday party game plan that helped mitigate H’s sensory overload. With extensive preparation including discussing all the possible details of the party, finding pictures on Google Earth of the party location, singing made up bedtime songs about the party, and coming up with an exit strategy if he started to feel overwhelmed, birthday parties started becoming manageable, even (sometimes) enjoyable. But, no amount of preparation could have prepared us for the storm trooper incident.
H was 3 ½ at the time and we’d made significant birthday party progress. And the upcoming party was at one of his favorite places- Playwerx! Home to an indoor, multi-level climbing structure with giant slides, ball pits and rope swings...talk about prop heaven! H couldn’t get enough of Playwerx and frequently requested to go. Of course, we had to time it right because if we went when it was too crowded, he became overwhelmed and anxious. But, as long as there weren’t too many kids, he was in heaven.
As soon as I told him the party was at Playwerx, he was excited. I did our normal pre-party preparation, making sure to mention that there would probably be a lot of kids. We talked about what H could do if it felt too crowded. He suggested that I could come on the play structure with him, which immediately made me reconsider our RSVP! With our plan in place, I felt confident that it would be a successful party.
The first sign of impending doom was the Star Wars banner hanging over the doorway of the party room. Star Wars? Uh-oh. There had been no mention of a Star Wars theme. I peeked inside the party room, quickly scanning for any other Star Wars paraphernalia- at that age, H had no idea what Star Wars was and had never seen any Star Wars imagery so I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything that might startle him. Overprotective? Maybe. But it’s justified protection so that my extremely sensitive kid doesn’t have a complete meltdown, ruining his day as well as his fellow partygoers. So, I did my Jedi recon and thought we were good to go.
To this day, I have no idea how I missed the giant, life-sized Stormtrooper balloon in the corner of the room. How do you miss something like that? I did see a delicious-looking Star Wars cake and some innocuous Star Wars themed plates and napkins, but somehow I missed that damn balloon. In my defense, I was distracted by a group of boys who were chasing each other and by H who, noticeably agitated by the commotion, was pulling at my leg, asking me to pick him up.
The play structure was teeming with children so, as we’d agreed, I found myself climbing behind H up to one of the giant slides. H seemed calm and was having fun despite all the chaos swirling around us, so I didn’t mind being the only adult barreling down the slide. Twenty minutes later (twenty minutes is a long, long time of slide playing), I nearly shrieked with joy when I heard the birthday boy’s mother yell, “Time for cake!” Crossfit has nothing on Playwerx- I was exhausted at that point. But H was in his element and wasn’t quite ready to stop climbing. While the rest of the kids excitedly rushed into the birthday room, H continued to play.
Everyone was singing Happy Birthday when I finally coaxed H to come down and join in. As we were approaching the party room, a friend of mine who was there with her kids, but not part of the party, saw me and called my name. In the moment that I turned to respond, H continued to walk into the room and that’s when it happened.
The next thing I knew, H was running past me towards the play structure. He disappeared into a small hiding place while shrieking in a terror-inducing pitch. I ran after him and found him curled up in a ball with his eyes closed screaming and shaking uncontrollably. At this point, I had no idea what had happened. I pulled him close to me, held him tight, rocked him back and forth, telling him that everything was ok and he was safe.
I held him as he shrieked in terror for what seemed like an eternity. My mind was racing, trying to think of what possibly could have caused such an extreme fight or flight response. He finally calmed down and we emerged from his hiding spot to a quiet group of alarmed parents and kids. His shrieking had been so loud and intense that even the crazy, loud, hyped up Playwerx environment had come to a total stand still. Everyone was looking at us with bewilderment, concern, and/or shock.
The birthday boy’s mom approached me asked if we were ok. Still stunned myself, I paused and then shook my head and replied, “I’m not sure, I have no idea what happened.” She pointed to the birthday room and I looked to see the birthday boy’s grandmother removing the giant, life-sized Stormtrooper balloon from the room. Luckily H had his head buried in my shoulder. I gasped.
Everyone resumed their activity and I politely excused myself and H from the party. He fell asleep within minutes of leaving- the poor thing was utterly spent. I tried to pinpoint what I was feeling...my heart was still racing and dozens of thoughts were swirling through my mind.
Why would someone have a Star Wars birthday party for a 3-year-old? And, if you’re having a Star Wars party, why wouldn’t you send a Star Wars invitation? Was I just being judgmental because I happen to have an extremely sensitive child who would most likely have night terrors involving Stormtroopers for the foreseeable future? And most importantly, how in the hell did I not see that effing balloon?
When H woke, we talked about what happened. I narrated the experience, highlighting the parts about the Stormtrooper balloon being pretend and him being safe. We discussed Star Wars and looked at some non-terror-inducing pictures online- more adorable Ewok, less petrifying robot. H concluded that he did not like Star Wars and also he did not like balloons, though he did think the Ewok was cute. I concluded that I did not like Star Wars either and also I did not like birthday parties with undisclosed themes.
As parents of kids with SPD, we can plan and prepare and anticipate, we can do our best to protect our kids, to mitigate experiences we know will be challenging, but sometimes, we’ll miss something. It could be staring us right in the face and we’ll still miss it. Our kids will experience something frightening, or in this case, absolutely terrifying. And that’s ok. Each difficult experience they endure and get through builds resilience. The important thing is not that we protect them from everything, but that we acknowledge and validate their feelings when they fall apart and we then help them make sense of their experiences.
That night, H asked me to snuggle him until he fell asleep and I readily agreed. As we snuggled, he asked, “Mommy, next time we go to Playwerx, can you check for Stormtroopers first?” Yes, honey, yes I will.