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Anxiety is no (birthday) party

Birthday parties are supposed to be fun celebrations full of laughter, smiles and memories. But for some children, the very sight of a colorful invitation evokes feelings of apprehension, anxiety and even fear. If your child is hesitant to attend a birthday party, what can you do to ease their concerns?

Jennifer Connor-Smith, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping children and their families. Her valuable insight may be just what you need to make the birthday party experience enjoyable rather than a potential nightmare.

Not all fun and games

The reaction kids have to a birthday invitation can range from uncontrollable exuberance to hiding under the bed in fear. If your child leans towards the latter, you’re definitely not alone. “It’s incredibly common for children to feel anxious about attending a birthday party, especially once they reach the age of going without a parent,” says Dr. Connor-Smith. “Uncertainty is a strong trigger of anxiety and there are many unknown elements at parties: Will I know all the kids? What are the rules of his house? Where is the bathroom? What if the games are too hard?” With so many variables, it’s understandable why some kids look at parties as a challenge.

Read about 6 ways to reduce kids’ anxiety >>

Lurking dangers?

While some kids may be shy about socializing at parties, some anxious feelings may be rooted in a more serious concern. “Many psychologists believe that fear of social exclusion is hard-wired into humans because in humanity’s past, exclusion from the group put a person’s survival at risk,” says Dr. Connor-Smith. “Although the worst thing likely to happen at a party is not having anyone to talk to, the alarm being sounded in a child’s brain makes the danger feel much more serious.” When this alarm sounds, a child can feel physically sick or act out inappropriately.

Could your child have an anxiety disorder? >>

An empathetic host

Hint: If you see a guest freezing up or hanging out on the fringe of the fun, try offering him a choice of activities so that he’s not focused on his anxiety.

If your child is typically the life of the party, you may experience an anxious guest at one of your own celebrations. If you see a guest freezing up or hanging out on the fringe of the fun, try offering him a choice of activities so that he’s not focused on his anxiety. “Empathy is also helpful, especially when it is expressed privately — such as whispering to a guest, ‘When I was a kid, parties made me really nervous. It always helped me to find something to do. Would you rather head to the craft table or go play tag?'” suggests Dr. Connor-Smith. If that doesn’t work, asking a child to be a helper will help keep her occupied and make her feel special.

Read about 4 tips for stopping separation anxiety >>

Practical tips

Dr. Connor-Smith offers the following tips for parents who face anxious kids when it comes to birthday parties:

Send your child to the party. The best way to find out that fears are bigger than the situation really justifies is to go to the party and realize that the feared things don’t happen, but cake and laughter do.
For children old enough for “drop-off” parties, parents should plan to leave within a few minutes. For younger children, parents should encourage their child to play with other children and participate in activities, rather than retreating to their parents.
Parents can help kids to come up with problem-solving plans for specific fears — like how to find the bathroom in an unfamiliar place or how to introduce themselves if they are sitting next to a child they don’t know.

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