Birthday Parties Are Hard For Kids With Anxiety, But It Doesn't Have To Be A Disaster

by April Marie Gott Walker
BLUR LIFE 1975 / Shutterstock

Dear Birthday Child’s Grown-Up:

First and foremost, thank you for inviting my son to your child’s birthday party. When an envelope addressed to my son arrives in the mail, I know it can only mean one thing. He is too young to receive his own bills and too new to this world to be inundated with junk mail.

And although it’s always a birthday party invitation, my son is filled with curiosity and wonder each and every time. As the corner of the envelope peels back to reveal a Pokémon character or Spiderman, the look on his face is priceless: A smile spreads across his face, and he is thrilled. The contents of this envelope include feelings of “I am wanted!” “People like me!” “I have friends!” and “Someone wants to play with me!”

Thank you for that.

Sadly, this happiness is short-lived. I watch in twisted horror as reality sets in. His “someone wants to play with me” smile quickly fades to a sadness that says, “I have to go to a new environment and be surrounded by new people, and stress about the unknowns of an event that I have no control over for the next two weeks.”

Oh, my heart aches every time. I play up the excitement: “Yippee! A birthday party! That will be sooo fun. I bet you’ll get cupcakes, and you love cupcakes!” I distract with, “What do you think so-and-so would want for a birthday present?” I strain to calm him and get him back on solid ground, to give him focus and decision-making opportunities — a sense of control — before he flutters away and into a panic attack.

If you’re a mom of a child with anxiety, you get it. You get me. You have witnessed this heartache firsthand. We’re on the same page, and you could be writing this same letter. If you’re parent who has no idea what I’m talking about, thank your aligned stars. Then read on so you can understand what’s going on and empathize when a child like mine shows up to your next party.

For many kids, going to a birthday party comes with zero stress and absolutely no worry — there’s only the excitement of seeing friends and having fun. But, as the mother of a child with social anxiety, I have left my son 1) cowering under a table at a bowling alley, 2) crying in a corner of a bounce house with his nose literally pressed up against the wall, and 3) hugging a tree while kids happily played with balls and bats and squirt guns all around him.

Let those drop-offs sink in for a moment. How would you cope as a parent? How would you walk away knowing that you are that parent with that kid. You’re probably thinking I’m the worst mom on the planet for walking away from these situations. For leaving him in these predicaments. For not holding his hand, and cuddling him close, and rushing him out the door. And perhaps I am?

I’ve yet to receive the manual on how to respond to these moments. If I’m being honest, I’m 100% nervous that I’m failing 100% of the time with him. I have no idea what is best for my child. And that scares the heck out of me.

What I do know is that he needs to start participating at his own pace. He does want to join. He does want to be around the other kids. He does like to play. We talk about it in the calm after the storm — when he comes home still riding his party high and excitedly tells me about whom he played with and what he did, with no memory of his previous anxieties and worries. This gives me comfort as I leave him at these parties when he’s in a state of anxiety, despite his tears and my embarrassment.

So what happens when we’ve left our son to his own devices and in your care? Once the party has started, he will:

– flip-flop between the highs of excitement and the lows of social anxiety in the weeks leading up to your party.

– take extreme care in choosing the perfect gift for your child. He will think about everything from the clothes your kid wears that could give him hints of his interests, to a conversation he once had four years ago during which your child mentioned they went swimming.

– decide he doesn’t want to attend the party on the day of. He will wake up in a cold sweat, and that will be the first thing he thinks of. He will beg and plead for me to call you and tell you he’s sick.

– be distracted by his parents on the drive over. We will ask him about his favorite hockey team, or have him tell us what he’s learning about in science class, or have him do math problems (his favorite distractor). Yes, that in and of itself sounds “different,” but it’s how his brain works. We’ve learned to embrace it and use it to our advantage.

– possibly cry or hide, or both, when we drop him off. We will follow the exact same ritual that we have followed for every drop-off, being careful not to deviate in the least. We will give him a hug, put on a stone-cold face of determination as we tell him to have fun and that we love him, and then turn around and walk away without a glance back. This isn’t because we don’t hear him cry. This isn’t because we don’t see him trying to follow us. This isn’t because we don’t love him. It isn’t even because we’re so excited to get a break from him, like any parent dropping their kid of for a few hours, as you’re probably thinking. We do this because we want him to feel empowered and successful, and even though it doesn’t seem like it now, he does feel these things when he gets home and has time to reflect. We do this because we know he can be brave, and we want him to know that for himself. We do this because we love him enough not to want this short-lived paralyzing fear to destroy his childhood. We do this because it makes us cry that he sometimes misses out because of his anxieties. We don’t want that to continue.

have fun. He will leave your child’s party with memories of fun, with the excitement of play, with a tummy full of cupcakes, and with only a distant memory of his fears but with a powerful memory of “I was brave.”

Is my child weird? No. Is my child odd? Maybe a little. Is my child unique? Definitely.

I love this kid who I am blessed to mother. I continue to struggle with his emotional intensities each and every day, but with that struggle comes the challenge to step up and figure it out so he can thrive. And I am proud of him.

Thank you for giving him the opportunity to prove he can be brave.


A parent who wants you to understand my child, because even though he’s different than most, he so badly wants to be “the same”