How to navigate birthday parties with a child who has sensory processing disorder

Updated: Jun 8

No doubt, we work with some AMAZING families here at Children In Motion. I am so blessed by all of the parents I work with- they are eager to learn, they engage in the OT experience, they ask about my family, they support CIM, and some of them are even willing to share their experiences on our blog! How did I get so lucky? I would like to introduce you to Mrs Laura Currey-Taseva, the author behind this post. She is an awesome & active mom of two kiddos, has taught at several local private schools, and is currently in school to further her counseling career. Enjoy and make sure you leave her some love in the comments!

Being out in the world with your child who struggles with sensory processing issues and motor issues can be quite an experience. For my kids, particularly my oldest who can be overwhelmed by crowds, noise, and adult attention, it can be tricky to navigate. I always felt this way, particularly at the birthday party events. They can be overwhelming even for the most grounded person.

Think about a typical child’s birthday party at a soft play/jumping place. These are not a place I would choose to spend a Saturday morning (bonus if the wise parents who do the early morning party provide coffee) but for young ones, they can be a frequent occurrence.

For a while, I was upset and frustrated by my child's reactions. She was super slow to warm up to the play, didn’t want to interact with the other children who were happily bouncing around and whooshing down slides, was even more reluctant with the well-intentioned adult, might be whiny and cry or just silent. Finally, my child would move outside of a five foot radius of my legs and begin to play. Often this meant that I found myself getting to climb up tight passages to slides, walking on jumping mats, etc. instead of hanging out on the side and watching from a distance. She would loosen up, begin to have fun and then bang! It would be time to stop playing and eat cake. This meant we had to go through the motions of stopping in the middle of playing, convince her to come with me into a new setting - the noisy party room - perhaps dealing with a dressed up character and more. I watched my child as she lingered at the door trying to figure out where to sit, etc. It can be very intimidating for both concerned parent and child. At least as a parent, I had an idea of what was going on, but early on kids don't know what to expect. Finally, it was time to leave the party, which was another negotiation, usually, by then she was worn out but into the party action and not ready to switch gears. I noticed that every time we left an event like this either in the car on the way home or as soon as we walked into the house or it was all over - meltdown city. These events could be fun but also stressful for my kid, and I quickly learned running errands or back to back parties wasn’t a good idea.

So here is what I learned:

- Going to jumpy places for my kid taxed her regarding noise, chaos, and motor skills - it practically ticks every box of sensory issues.

- Prepping her beforehand to know what to expect was good.

- Giving her the time to hold my hand, stick close by and ease in was good, and I needed to expect it not be frustrated by it.

- I should wear comfortable clothes, bring socks, and be ready to participate actively.

- Remind the child that the present is going to the birthday friend.

- I learned to cue her to do "the last thing" and head out.

- Let it go - this was hard for me - I spent a lot of time worrying about what other parents were thinking about how my kid was reacting. Chances are they are unaware or entirely sympathetic. For those who might be judging, I had to learn to shrug it off.

- Plan for some activity once at home that will reboot your child. This could be quiet play, reading, or whatever works for your child to resettle himself.

- Finally, know that you don’t have to say yes to every party. Some might be best to sit out. If you feel like you need to celebrate the birthday child create a play date that works best for both of you.

Who can relate to what Laura has experienced? I found myself chuckling when Laura described herself having to climb through tight spaces on jungle gyms because I know exactly what she's talking about! Despite how funny that image can be, I'm sure we can all agree that birthday parties are so overwhelming and can be even more so for children with sensory processing difficulties. I loved hearing everything Laura has learned through this process, and especially can agree with her when she says you have to let go of what other parents are thinking about your child or your situation and that sometimes you can say no to going to a birthday party and instead meet up for a much more manageable play date. What did you guys find most encouraging or relatable?

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photography by Lydia Chang