At a glance
Kids with learning and thinking differences might not find birthday parties as fun as other children do.
Parties require organization and social skills—that can be tricky for many children.
Lots of traditional party activities can feel overwhelming for kids with learning and thinking differences.
Cake! Balloons! Presents! Friends! Birthday celebrations are meant to be fun. But kids with learning and thinking differences may have trouble enjoying themselves at a friend’s birthday party. (Even their own birthday party may feel uncomfortable or overwhelming.) Here are some things that can trip up kids at a birthday party.
1. Birthday parties require organization skills.
Think about all the steps involved in learning about and eventually making it to a friend’s party (for children age 8 and older):
- Your child receives an invitation, in person or online.
- She needs to tell you about it and ask permission to go. (Older kids must secure a ride.)
- She must respond to the birthday child.
- She has to pick out a present.
- She needs to remember the gift and whatever else the host has asked her to bring to the party.
- She has to be on time.
That’s a lot to keep straight! It can be difficult for kids with learning and thinking differences—especially those with executive functioning issues—to follow through on that many steps. Your child may need your assistance to make sure that she remembers to RSVP, make a card and bring a present.
2. Birthday parties rely on social skills.
Parties are all about interacting with others. Your child is expected to talk to other party guests, say “Happy Birthday” to the birthday child and thank him for the invitation. Your child may need to ask other adults for more juice or where the bathroom is.
All of this can be especially tough for kids who have trouble with spoken language and social skills challenges. For example, kids who have trouble with self-control might cut the line to hit the piñata or grab the first piece of cake. If your child has issues picking up on social cues, she might have difficulty sitting quietly while the birthday child opens presents.
Kids who have trouble making friends at school might feel awkward seeing children they recognize but don’t know well. If your child has a hard time starting conversations with new people and is surrounded by strangers, she may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable.
3. Birthday parties can be overwhelming!
A lot goes on at birthday parties: There might be organized games or activities. There will likely be music and singing. Your child might not see food she’s used to. She might have lots of treats she doesn’t usually eat at home.
If your child becomes overwhelmed in crowded, noisy places, she may have trouble handling the commotion at a laser tag arena, for example, and want to leave. On the other hand, if your child feeds off the energy of people around her, she may become hyper or out of control.
How you can make birthday parties more manageable
You know your child best. When deciding whether to let her go to a party, try to learn as much as you can about who will be there and what will take place. Once you have the facts, you can make a more informed decision about whether your child should go.
For example, a gymnastics party might not be the right fit for a child who has issues involving movement. If your child has sensory processing issues, a party at a ball pit could spell trouble. The more you know about the party, the easier it will be to talk to your child about what she’ll experience.
Role-playing what will take place can be helpful for younger children—it can help them think through some of the trickier situations they might encounter. By preparing ahead of time, you’re helping make sure the party is fun for everyone.
Kids with learning and thinking differences may have trouble with the organization and social skills that birthday parties require.
You can help make parties more manageable for your child. Beforehand, ask about who will be there and what will take place.
Prepare your child with details to make the event more fun.
About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former community manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Laura Tagliareni, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center.