Here Are Six Easy Ways To Help Ease Your Child's Fears.
By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal
Tara Covais Varsov, LCSW, wants parents to know that attending birthday parties is not something that your child must be good at. The truth? Birthday parties are hard. They're usually in an unfamiliar setting and children enter this social experience differently than they do at school or a playdate. Parents shouldn’t worry if their children feel anxious. Instead, they must understand that it’s typical because parties are unfamiliar. Here, Tara offers six ways to help ease birthday party anxiety.
1. Talk It Out
Find out which part of a birthday party your child is most anxious about and why. With any anxiety, fear or phobia, it’s best to say, ‘Let's talk about it, let's understand what part you don't like.’ Say, ‘Okay, I notice you got really worried or really nervous about going to so and so's birthday party. Talk to me about what part you don't like.’ For many kids, it's that moment when they walk in that produces the most anxiety. Explain that they should try to have fun and if something makes them feel bad, they can take a break. But, there’s always a balance. You need to figure out how much to push and how much to just let unfold. By talking through and understanding where the anxiety is coming from, you can make those decisions in a much easier way.
2. Arrive On Time
Arriving at a birthday party on time is crucial. It gives your child the best opportunity to create a relationship or pair off with someone so they're not walking into an environment where the groups are already set. Kids need to feel like they've got a place and coming late often makes that much harder. Joining a party late is a skill that many adults aren't great at. But, adults have had years to create strategies for themselves such as grabbing a snack or finding the person they feel most comfortable with to cling to. Kids don't have those strategies in place yet.
3. Make Sure The Party Spot Is Familiar
Sometimes kids with birthday party anxiety are anxious about new settings in general. Drive past the birthday party spot a few days before. Do it nonchalantly, say, ‘My gosh, that's where you're going on Saturday! Let's stop at Trader Joe's before and grab something for dinner and then we'll drive by.’ You're setting it up so it's manageable. Take the unpredictable and make it a bit more predictable by walking through how everything will go. If it's at a place like an arcade or indoor trampoline park, show your child what it looks like online. If your child has special needs, sensory or social issues—walk them through the experience. ‘Sometimes you don't like loud noises, it might be loud inside. What should we do about that? What can you do?’ Show them that there’s benches and quiet areas. Say, ‘I have a great idea—if you feel worried or overwhelmed, why don't you find one of these spots?’ Making the unpredictable predictable always helps kids feel more secure.
4. Normalize Worries
As parents, sometimes our children’s worries make us so worried that we then create a bigger issue around a fear. Normalize it. Say to your child, ‘This is totally normal to feel anxious about a birthday party. I don't know what to do when I walk into a birthday party either.’ Normalizing worry is important because kids can from zero to 20 very quickly unless we slow them down sometimes.
5. Create A Sense Of Security
Sometimes birthday party anxiety is about separation. At school, kids separate from you and go to a teacher. At birthday parties, it's aimless. Kids know how to separate at school, or at grandma's house or even on a playdate. But a party? It's so overwhelming. Send a small security item that your child can keep in their pocket such as a little cotton ball, a penny, a jewel from the bead box—whatever will make them feel safe. Tell them, ‘If you feel worried, just touch the item and it will remind you I'll come back soon. The Kissing Hand is a great book to read beforehand—it reminds kids that even when there's separation, mom and dad always come back. Every home/classroom should have it! It’s often my new baby gift book. Owl Babies is easier/safer/less scary for children to work through issues when they can’t directly identify them, which is why animals in stories can be so helpful. llama llama misses mama is playful, emotional and has good resolutions. And Wemberly Worried is a wonderful book for the generalized worrier.
6. Keep It fun
If your child is not ready, it’s okay to take parties off the table and work up to it. Say, ‘This is hard now. We're going to work on it. Let's celebrate the birthday in another way—perhaps a one on one playdate—and how about by April we attend a party?’ I'm a believer that no kid should be vomiting because they have to go to a birthday party. It should feel good and always be fun—and it's important for parents to tell that to an anxious child too.