When I opened the sparkly, balloon-covered invitation, I was bombarded with mixed emotions. My 6-year-old daughter, Pearl, was invited to a birthday party. And it was at a bouncy castle place.
Let me tell you: when you’re the parent of a child with unique challenges, it’s possible to be both delighted and anxiety-ridden about receiving such an invite. Each invitation, each party, each social function, is both a milestone and a hurdle.
I’ve been through many with Pearl, who had a stroke at six weeks old that resulted in cerebral palsy, ADHD and learning disabilities.
So when she was included in the party, I was simultaneously thrilled about my Pearly having school friends and completely worried about how I was going to make the event happen for her.
This is a common concern for parents of children with complex challenges. While you want your child to feel included and comfortable among her peers, you also know how difficult it can be to deal with a birthday party’s physical and emotional toll.
As both a parent of a child who must overcome challenges every day, and as a friend and mentor to the children I serve as Head of School at The Quaker School, I’ve luckily learned some ways to make these social situations more fun than frantic.
Here are my time-tested tips, which I hope will help make the birthday party experience more enjoyable for everyone:
#1: Don’t expect to drop off – even if it is a drop-off party.
One of the biggest challenges with birthday parties is the physical birthday party space. Birthday centers are loud, bright, busy and overwhelming – even for us adults! It’s a lot for children to absorb, and it may take some children a while to adjust.
By planning on staying at the party with your child, you will provide a sense of balance and normalcy in an overpowering environment. Your child will find comfort in knowing that you are there if needed, even if you are simply a quiet presence in the corner.
#2: Prepare your child for what to expect.
Help set your child’s expectations by discussing the party in detail well before the actual party arrives – especially if the party involves an activity your child has never done before.
There are many ways to prepare, pre-party:
Explain to your child what the party is like. For example, if it’s at an active place, let your child know there will be times for play, and then times to sit together as a group to have pizza and cake. Having a “schedule” will help ease tension.
Explain that you will be celebrating another child’s birthday. This is a tough one. (In our house, Pearl thinks every party is for her.) Having this candid conversation before the party will remind your child of the party’s purpose.
Show your child a video on YouTube. Most birthday party centers have online videos that offer a glimpse of the space, as well as an overview of available activities. Allowing your child to watch this in advance may help the place feel more recognizable on the day of the party.
Take your child to the venue ahead of time (not on the same day). By allowing your child to experience the venue beforehand, you can identify any possible triggers (compressors for the bouncy castles, falling pins from the bowling balls, etc.) and avoid them on party day.
Have your child eat ahead of time. Some children will not eat at parties because they are too overwhelmed. Ensure your child has enough energy to last through the party by eating beforehand, or by bringing your own food if your child has a specialized diet.
#3: Allow your child to have to have fun in her own way.
As a parent, the most stressful part of attending a child’s birthday party is often the anxiety that comes with not knowing how your child will react or behave.
Remember: don’t be so hard on yourself, or on your child. It’s ok if your child does not follow the party format and behave like the other kids. Let her have her own fun. If she wants to wander around the place, or not eat the cake, fine. The victory is in attending the party and enjoying it in her own way.
#4: Leave while your child is still having fun.
If your child enjoys herself, the party is a success – regardless of how long you stay. Keep an eye out for warning signs that your child’s energy or enthusiasm may be fading, or her anxieties may be rising, and leave the party before her behavior shifts. This will allow both of you to remember the party fondly, and look forward to the next one.
Overall, it’s not our job as parents to force our children to have fun and make friends: it’s our job to let it happen naturally by putting our kids in positive and comfortable situations. So go into your next birthday party with an open heart and open mind, and remember to have some fun with your child as she celebrates another major milestone in her development.