Top Tips for helping children handle parties
There is an assumption that children and parties go together like bread and jam. And parties are important for the social development of our children.
In many ways, children and parties do have a natural affinity – they both tend to be full of activity and noise, and they’re often somewhat chaotic, and usually quite exhausting!
Parties present a different world to children, a world where the rules are often very different and this can make it hard for them to know how to behave.
Some children don’t enjoy parties – and others enjoy them too much! Either can cause challenges for parents.
There is a wealth of information about how to organise a successful child’s party and plenty to say about whether or not creating a Fabulous Event for a 3 year old is appropriate. But for now we’re going to focus on how parents can make a party a success for the child themselves, helping them feel better, and behave better, and gain from the opportunities offered.
In our experience, these are the 3 main areas parents worry about – and some ideas about how you can help your child:
Nerves and reluctance to join in
Some children throw themselves in with abandon as soon as they arrive. Others hang back and find it hard to join in the merriment. Many children feel anxious or insecure in unknown situations, and this can be exacerbated if they are also to be separated from parents/caregivers. (Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect 18month-2 year olds – it comes in fits and starts, and often another peak is at 5-6 and at 7-8 years old.)
When it looks like our child is not going to join in, it can make us feel disappointed that they’re not going to enjoy themselves, particularly if we’ve made an effort to get there, or worried that they’re out of their depth and we’ve done something wrong, or we can’t help them or that they’ll grow up to be a social misfit!
Being the life and soul of the party is not for all of us! And most parents would choose “being a good friend” over “being a party-animal” for their child! If your child’s temperament means they are more cautious, and reserved, this doesn’t make them wrong- it’s just who they are and we need to accept and support them. Understanding our children’s temperament helps us find ways to help them. For example:
- Talk with them beforehand about how they feel about parties – acknowledge that there is a pressure to enjoy parties, and empathise that parties can feel overwhelming. Wait for them to respond – and allow them to tell you if they don’t enjoy parties – some children are particularly sensorially sensitive and find the lights, noise and activity more stressful. You can empathise about worries they may have WITHOUT making them more worried. This might sound like: “I know you’re looking forward to Charlie’s party because he’s your friend, and I wonder if you’re also a bit worried about what’s going to happen at the party? Sometimes there is so much going on, and it’s loud and there are lots of people and it is hard to join in games….”
- Discuss with them what friendship involves – it’s not all about playing games at parties and being a standout leader in a group- the ‘popular’ one. Friendship is also about being kind, sharing, and helping others. Encourage your child to see themselves as a good friend, even if they don’t like joining in noisy, boisterous activities. This might sound like: “I know Molly likes music and dancing, and they’re not your favourite things to do. You and she are good friends though – she loves coming here to play with your doll’s house, and spending time with you.”
- Notice and descriptively praise any progress in the right direction – if your child watches the activities or games from a distance, clutching your hand, that’s better than running out of the room. Some children watch entire puppet shows or balloon displays from the doorway or stairs. At least they’re engaged, as far as they feel they can be, and they have created a great coping mechanism for themselves. Acknowledge them: “I see you’ve settled yourself down there where you feel comfortable. I think you want to watch the clown lady, and you want to make sure you can see your friends, even though you don’t want to sit with them.” One mum helped her child acclimatise to parties in small steps by letting her stand next to her and gradually helping her move closer to the action, until finally the girl said mum could leave!
Over-exuberance and not wanting to leave
Some children jump in feet first, and commit to having a full role in every aspect of the party and may even take over somewhat. And, with no sense of time, and no awareness of all the other things you have to do that afternoon/evening, they find it impossible to leave when they are asked.
- Practice at home beforehand – do a role play of leaving the party and walk through with your child all the stages involved – from finding their coat, saying thank you to the host, and good-bye to their friends. Have some fun, you can even swap roles and let your child be the host and you can be the reluctant leaver. Role plays work well because they help children practice things they find hard in a safe, non-judgemental, non-pressured, supportive environment.
- Plan something interesting (and calming!) to do afterwards – discuss and agree this with your child beforehand. When you arrive, you can empathise with their reluctance to leave – rather than make them feel wrong for wanting to stay – and gently remind (rather than nag or threaten!) them about the planned activity at home. This might sound like: “Gosh, you look like you’ve had lots of fun, and now it’s time to leave which isn’t so much fun, is it? Do you remember what we practiced? And what we’re going to do when we get home?”
The evening after the party…..
Once we’ve got home safely, it’s tempting to believe it’s all done and dusted.
Actually, it takes children a remarkably long time to calm down after the intensity of a party. After all the hype, nerves, adrenalin and sugar, it’s difficult for them to adjust to the order and expectations of the real world again.
The more tired they are, the harder it is for them to do anything – including going to sleep. Yet all we want to do is collapse into bed! This can mean we ourselves are not calm, and this doesn’t help.
Rather than pushing them to go to sleep earlier, it can help to start the wind-down to bedtime earlier and make time to do something smoothing and calming. Even if it means they go to bed at the same time as normal, they should fall asleep more peacefully and have a better night’s rest.
Ideas include: deep “sleepy” breathing, gentle massage, having candles/bubbles in the bath, reading favourite stories in your bed. When you’re reading it can help children relax if you gradually slow your voice down and lower the volume, making longer pauses between sentences. It might also help to stroke the child in a rhythm that matches your reading.
It may help to modify some rules or expectations about the evening to allow for the earlier mayhem – for example, if you usually require that your child puts their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, maybe you can do this for them. It doesn’t mean the rule is broken, it’s just the rule applies to “normal” days and doesn’t apply on party night! If you want to maintain any house-keeping rules, be prepared that they might be forgotten, not done so well, or done very slowly and grumpily!
Over all, it always helps us to look at things from our child’s perspective – in time they will be able to do this for you too. When we consider the experience they’ve had at the party, it’s not hard to see how they may crumble or explode later at home.