Dear “Birthday Child’s Grown-Up,”
First and foremost, thank you for inviting my son to your child’s birthday party. When an envelope arrives in the mail addressed to my son, I know it could only mean one thing. He is too young to receive his own bills and too “new to the this world” to be inundated with junk mail. Although I know that someone is inviting my son to a birthday party, my son is filled with curiosity and wonder each and every time. As the corner of the envelope peels back to reveal a Pokemon character, or the postcard falls out to reveal 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!” “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 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 sadness. Oh, my heart aches every time. I play up the excitement. YIPPEEEE! A birthday party! That will be SOOOOOOOOOO fun. I bet you’ll get cupcakes, and you LOOOOOOOOVE cupcakes! I distract with “What do you think so-and-so would want for a birthday present?” I strain to get his brain back on solid ground, to give him focus and decision making before he flutters away to a panic attack.
If you’re a mom of a child with anxiety, you get me. You’re on my page and have witnessed this heartache first hand. You feel like you yourself could have written 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 if a “child like mine” shows up at your next party.
For many kids, going to a birthday party comes with zero stress and absolutely no worry…. Just the excitement of seeing friends and having fun. As a mom of a child with social anxieties, I have left my son 1.) Cowering under a table at a bowling alley 2.) Crying in a corner of a bouncy-house-building with his nose touching a 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 that predicament. For not holding his hand, and cuddling him close, and running 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 from his party high and excitedly tells me about who he played with and what he did, with no memory of the previous anxieties and worries. This gives me comfort as I leave him, despite his tears and my embarrassment.
What parents should know:
If you invite my son to your child’s party, he will:
- flip-flop between the highs of excitement and the lows of social anxiety torture 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 interests, to a conversation he once had 4 years ago where your child mentioned he/she went swimming.
- decide he doesn’t want to attend the party the day of. He will wake up in cold sweats 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, or (his favorite distractor) have him do math problems. 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 our 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 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, as you’re probably thinking. We do this because we want him to feel successful, and even though it doesn’t seem like it now, he does when he gets home and reflects. We do this because we know he can be brave, and we want him to know that same thing. We do this because we love him enough to not 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 excitement of play, with a tummy full of cupcakes and with only a distant memory of his fears but an intense 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 that I am blessed to mother. I continue to struggle with his emotional intensities each and every day, but with that struggle comes a challenge to step up and figure it out. 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”
Please see my article, as published on Scary Mommy.