A few years ago, I brought our granddaughter Katie to a 4 year old’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. We looked around for the birthday girl. She was nowhere in sight. We finally located the mother standing by a table talking to the big, fluffy-costumed Chuck E. Cheese. “Where’s Brianna?” Katie yelled above the din. The mother replied, “She’s under the table, and she won’t come out.” Oh no, I thought, another birthday party disaster.
Children’s birthday parties have become big deals and can be very stressful. Some are overly fancy, crowded with kids and adults, while others are simple and quaint.
It’s important to help your shy child prepare for a birthday party ahead of time. When the invitation arrives, talk about it. If there are several parties in a row, let him skip one or two that he doesn’t feel strongly about. If he plans to go, put a sticker on the calendar for the date. When you call to RSVP, ask how many children will be there and what activities are planned. Then pass along the information to your child so he can mentally prepare. Have your child help you choose and wrap the gift, and let him make the card. This will help him feel more involved. Incidentally, many introverted children are insightful about choosing gifts and usually enjoy wrapping them.
Discuss the party early on the day of the event. You can start the conversation by asking, “It’s almost party time. How are you feeling?” or “Is there anything you are worried about?” “I’m excited, but I hope there aren’t too many kids,” your child might say. “Well,” you can say, “if it feels crowded don’t forget to take a breather.”
Be sure your child is rested and has eaten before going to the party. Remind him that intense bodily discomforts, like butterflies in the stomach or upper-body tension, will dissipate as he becomes more comfortable. Don’t push him to interact before he feels ready. Let him ease into the party by watching with you from the sidelines. It might help to arrive a few minutes early to say hello to the host child and get acclimated before the other guests show up. Remind him to take breaks away from the hubbub— perhaps helping in the kitchen, stepping into a quiet unused room or sitting on the front porch for awhile. If it is a long party, he might not want to stay the whole time.
If you stay through the party, you can help by being open and friendly. If you chat with some of the kids, your child may join in after awhile. Remind him that when he feels ready, he can wave, nod or say hi. As he gets older, he can learn to smile at a friendly-looking child and practice an opening question.
When your very young child is having a birthday party, keep it small and simple, short and sweet. Let him select the theme, have a say about the food and encourage him to help prepare for the party. He may, in fact, enjoy the preparations the most. Seven-year-old Todd’s Mom and Dad planned his birthday party with both shy and outgoing kids in mind. They had a Spiderman bouncer set up in the backyard. They also put out toy dinosaurs and Lego construction pieces in the living room. Any of the boys who needed a breather could get away from all the bouncing and bobbing. Boys flowed in and out throughout the party. Two introverted boys played alone with the dinosaurs for awhile. One was the birthday boy himself.
As introverted children get older, they may prefer taking a friend or two to a movie or other special outings like a trip to the beach or skiing. By the age of 8 or 9, your child may want to tackle a sleepover with a few friends. You might consider staggering birthday celebrations by separating family parties and friend parties. Usually, in our family we have small parties. One celebration is for one set of grandparents and a few friends. Another party, a week later, is for the other side of the family and several other friends.
While many parents see the social arena as beyond their control, be assured that you can have a strong, positive influence on your child’s social abilities. After all, it is through his daily experiences with you that he learns how to interact with others. One important way for you to help him build social muscle is by valuing and recognizing his social gifts and understanding his social challenges. Through your own example, you can teach social skills and increase his confidence in handling all types of social situations.