By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 116


What you’ll hear in this episode:

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Neurodivergent kids & birthday parties: the struggle is real
There's a chance that they are completely drained and exhausted after a birthday party, and I don't mean like exhausted, like, Oh, they're going to take a nap. Yeah, some might, but they may be so cognitively drained that they don't have the capacity to maintain emotional regulation skills. And you might see some increased...

There’s a chance that they are completely drained and exhausted after a birthday party, and I don’t mean like exhausted, like, Oh, they’re going to take a nap. Yeah, some might, but they may be so cognitively drained that they don’t have the capacity to maintain emotional regulation skills. And you might see some increased behaviors after the birthday party. Welcome to the sensory wise solutions podcast for parents, where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom to Lilyana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new ot mom, bestie. I know my stuff. But I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s try the podcast. Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. Today, we are talking all about birthday parties. Birthday parties are a huge part of childhood. And as parents to neurodivergent kids, attending birthday parties and hosting birthday parties comes with a little bit more complications. And we’re going to talk about that today. So I’m going to help you on both sides. So some tips to help your neurodivergent child feel more comfortable attending other people’s birthday parties, and some tips to consider when throwing your neurodivergent child their own birthday party. So first up, let’s just dive right in. Let’s talk about how we can make the experience of attending birthday parties a little less stressful. If you have a neurodivergent kid, maybe you’ve experienced any of the following when it comes to going to those birthday parties. So maybe you have a child who worries in anticipation of the birthday party and they are full of questions who’s going to be there? What are we going to do? Who am I going to play with maybe have a child who goes to the birthday party, but is completely dysregulated most or all of the time, whether it’s meltdowns and dysregulation from over stimulation, or something being out of their control, or they’re afraid or sensitive to the sounds or the activities. Or maybe they’re dysregulated and hyperactive and impulsive and unsafe and causing issues and injuries. Or maybe you have a child who was mostly fine at the birthday party. But then like the rest of the day, in the following days, they’re unraveling and dysregulated. And having a hard time. Do any of those sound familiar? It’s very common. And I’ve had to work through some of those with my daughter as well. And if I’m being honest here, even for myself, I’ve noticed more and more as I’ve opened my eyes to my own neuro divergence how much large social gatherings just completely messes with my nervous system. So I’m going to give you some tips on how to maximize regulation days leading up to the birthday party and how to manage on the day of the birthday party that they’re attending. So first, keep in mind, I you know me, I like to brain dump a lot of things. So I’m going to share a lot of different strategies that I can think of that for some of you might feel like overkill and too much and you’re like, I’m not doing that, that’s fine, I totally get it. Some parents are going to need every single one of these strategies to be successful. Other parents maybe only need to take some of these tips. As always, I offer the strategies you take what you need, and leave what you don’t. So let’s talk first about proactive tips for attending birthday parties. And I’m starting with before the day of the birthday party. So once you’ve already RSVP or decided that you’re going to attend a birthday party, try to prepare your child at least a few days before the party and prepare them with things for what they can expect. So remember, the unknown, and the anticipation of an event can be really stressful for some nervous systems. So filling in as many of those gaps can help. So some ideas, you could show them pictures of the venue or the park that you’ll be going to you can look on Yelp you can look on websites that you can look on social media. If it’s a house like somebody’s house, obviously you’re not gonna Show them pictures of the house. But maybe you look it up on the map and see where it is. And maybe you could show like the Google Maps like street view. So you can see what the outside of the house looks like. If it’s a special venue, like a theme park, or like a jump house or rock climbing venue, find out as many details as you can about what their birthday party sequence is like. So for example, like if you go to like a ceramics creation place for a birthday party, you might call the place I’m sure they have very specific birthday protocol. And you could say, What’s it like to attend a birthday party there? And they’ll say, oh, you know, we bring all the kids back to a backroom, then they all get to pick which paintbrush they have, like all of their particular like protocol. So if it’s at a specific place of business that frequently hosts kid’s birthday parties, call them in advance and just say, Hey, I’m attending a birthday party there soon, can you tell me what to expect, so that I can prepare my child, find out if there are any particular pieces of clothing that your child needs to wear, like socks, or closed toed shoes, or bathing suits. And if you need to prepare your child for that, because some kids have a hard time with certain articles of clothing. So all of those tips that I just shared, you might put all of that information together in a social story to read to your child. Or you could just, you know, share the information, like walk it through for them. But if you do want to create a social story for your child, this works great for young kids. If you want tips on how to create that, then head to Episode 85. So just go to the OT 85. And I’ll give you my tips on how to create a social story. So if you’re particularly concerned about your child’s behaviors around other kids, or maybe there’s something specific at the venue that you’re already anticipating is going to be particularly hard for your child. Depending on how well you know, the parent of the child’s birthday party, you could consider calling them texting them, emailing them, and giving them a heads up. So again, this isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t reach out to every single parent of the kid whose birthday party my child’s going to. And this might be overkill for some parents, but I might do this. If this was first some of Liliana has friends, parents who I know well, and they know Liliana and I would feel comfortable. If she was invited to a birthday party that I was thinking may or may not trigger some of her feelings, for whatever reason or sensory stuff. And I knew the parents, I might give them a text or a heads up to say something along the lines of like, Hey, we’re really excited to go to else’s birthday party. Liliana is so excited. I just wanted to give you a heads up Liliana is really particular about clothing. And I noticed that there’s a dress code that requires socks for them to play in the bounce house, I’m definitely going to bring socks so she can participate. But there’s a chance that wearing socks may make her feel uncomfortable. So we might end up having to take like some breaks or leave early if it just doesn’t work out. I know you’re paying for tickets in advance. So just wanted to be transparent with you let me know if you have any questions. So kind of just giving them a heads up of anything that you think might come up, right? Again, totally not necessary. But if you find that that would be helpful to have other parents like know kind of what to expect, go for it. You could also take these few days in advance of the birthday party to roleplay any kind of scenario that you might anticipate happening with your child. So for example, maybe you have a child who has a hard time when they don’t get to go first for things. So you might roleplay and practice what it’s like when the birthday boy gets to go first for cake. Or when someone else gets to go first for the pin yada. So you might have to like roleplay and practice and have them practice what to say what to do how to regulate. This is also the time to talk to them about birthday songs and clapping and opening presents. All of the things that can commonly be hard for neurodivergent kids to sit through and watch so you could practice it with them. Or you can ask them if they want to stay for that or if they’re telling you no I’d rather leave before that happens. Then based on that conversation, you can make that decision and you could again, include that in the conversation when you talk to the other child’s parent if you choose to do that. Or you might make the decision already for your child if they can’t really tell you what they prefer. But you know like those things for sure are a trigger. So you plan to you know, take a bathroom break during the birthday song or you plan to leave early.So you might also have to do some working with your child and preparing them on how to pick out a birthday present and being okay with that, again, this is a great thing to do with the social story, go to Episode 85 To learn more about that, but some kids have a hard time when it comes to picking out toys or presents for other kids. So you might have to shop for the president on your own. But this is something that you might need to prepare your child for. And also what it’s going to feel like to hand a gift over to another kid, especially if this is like their first birthday party, it might be new to them something that you don’t really think about. Alright, so now we’re going to switch to talking about proactive supports, but what you’re going to do the day of the party so before you go to the party, what can you do the day of whether this we’re talking about like, you know, late morning birthday party, a lunch party, even an evening party. I always suggest that the few hours before your child attends the birthday party. They should be as low key as possible. Try to keep their breakfasts, their foods, their snacks their routine as familiar and safe as possible. So like paws on the food exploring activities like this is not the day to get them to try to eat eggs of eggs or like not a safe food for them. I would also try not to do unnecessary errands or bring them with you on unnecessary errands or fill their mornings before a birthday party in the afternoon. I am 100% that kind of person where if I have a commitment if I have a doctor’s appointment, a family party, something that’s like even like literally at like 3pm Nope, sorry, I cannot hang out with you in the morning. I can’t get coffee with you. I can’t get lunch. I’ve got something going on at 3pm. Like my whole day is shut down. Because I can only handle like one major commitment one major thing a day. But I know that there are people because I have friends like this. I have people who are parents and their families have really full weekends. There’s practices, there’s games, there’s scrimmages, there’s multiple birthday parties, there’s dinners, there’s camping trips, like I get it. Some families are very big and and have like full social calendars. But if you’re here, listening to this episode, asking me for advice on how to help your neurodivergent child be more regulated at a birthday party, the answer is to not overload them the day leading up to the birthday party. So other tips for you, depending on the nature and the details of the birthday party, you might consider adjusting the time that you show up. Here are a few scenarios specifically that I’m thinking of that I’m going to call out. So maybe you have a child who you know, has like a really strong connection with the birthday person. But maybe not the other classmates like maybe this is your child’s one and only best friend and you’re going to their birthday party and they’re really excited. But you know that they don’t really play with the other kids or do well in big groups. So if this party is like at their house, or like a park, I would just plan on arriving early slash like I mean, not early, like you don’t want to surprise the family and get there 10 minutes early. But I mean, like at least arrive right on time or right at the very beginning as it starts so that your child has some one on one time, or at least more like space time so to speak with the birthday kid before it gets hectic. Because you know as soon as other people start showing up and the birthday kid has to greet everyone has to like play with everyone equally. I remember some of the first birthday parties Liliana joined when she was just starting to become like invited to birthday parties. And it was really hard when we arrived like within 15 to 20 minutes of the party starting and the kids had already, you know, started playing a game of tag or hide and seek. And she was really hesitant to join, it was hard to encourage her to join like in on their play. We had more successful times that future birthday parties if we could arrive early or like right at the beginning. And she’d be able to spend time with the birthday kid like kind of on their own or with just minimal people. And then as others arrive she’d be like warmed up and more open to playing in a large group versus joining in later. So maybe you have a child who is the opposite, maybe they don’t do well. And that kind of like awkward, you know, when you’re the first people at a birthday party and you just really have to talk to like their parents and the kids are kind of there and maybe they’re not best friends. It’s just like someone like an acquaintance from their class and you’re going to their birthday party. So there’s a lot more of this, like, awkward forced one on one interaction, and maybe they don’t do well with that. So maybe showing up early to those birthday parties might put them in the position of like awkward questions from adults and conversations and things that are hard for them. So maybe it’s best to show up later and blend in to the party and just kind of casually like wave to the birthday kid and then go off and play and be part of the birthday. That could be you, maybe there’s a part of the birthday party that you know is happening that you want to completely skip. So you plan around that and have them come earlier, or later, depending on what that is, like, if there’s a clown visiting the party, or if there’s, you know, if you know, the birthday song or whatever is happening, and you’re like, that’s just not going to go well, for my child, we’re going to leave early, we’re going to drop off the present, play for 20 minutes and then leave. Another thing to help proactively on the day of before going to the birthday party is, this is the time to provide proactive regulation strategies for your child, depending on of course, what their nervous system needs, every child is different. But for example, if you have a child who has high energy, and they have a high threshold for movement, and they need lots of movement, perhaps you set up their swing for them or spend some time playing soccer with them in the backyard, you really want to arrive at the birthday party with their nervous system already in a regulated state, so that they’re not spending all of that time seeking more of it out. On the way to the party, you might start reminding them in the car of the things that you discussed, as you prepared with them a few days before, maybe you’re going to come up at this time with any cues or codes that you want to help them with and be prepared for. So for example, you might say this to your child, like, as you’re driving to the party, you might say, Hey, by the way, I have your headphones with me, they’re right here in my purse, if you feel like it’s getting too loud, you can come get them and put them on at any time. And if you start noticing that there’s too many people in one room and you start feeling overwhelmed, and you don’t like that, you can look at me and tug your ear. And I’ll know that that’s a secret code. And that means that you want to take a break, and then we’ll just go outside and take a walk to the car together and come right back. So you’re already giving them ways like an exit out and an exit plan. And in a way to communicate that to you. If you guys are like across the room. You might also remind them about who’s going to be there and what that social situation might be late. So you could say something like, I know, we’re hoping that your best friend Maddie is there, I’m not sure if she’s going to be there. But when we get there, if you don’t see anyone that you know, you can stay next to me as long as you need until you feel ready to join others. So already kind of preparing them, you might not see your best friend when we get there. But like you can totally sit next to me, I’ve got you. So giving them that in advance. This is also the time to just offer any other reminders of things like sensory strategies they can use or reminding them of what time you’re going to be leaving. All of these things are great to remind them before you step into the party. All right, so quickly, let’s talk about managing regulation while you’re at the birthday party. So we get to the birthday party, we’ve set our child up for success, we’ve reminded them we’ve role played, we’ve been the social stories. We’ve offered regulation strategies, but what about when we’re there and maybe it doesn’t fully work, and they’re starting to become dysregulated? What are some things that you can do? So the first thing I would do, as soon as I got to the venue, or the place or the house or the park is I would take a visual inventory, look around and keep an eye out for the best space for like a meltdown break or regulation break. So look for you know, extra bedrooms, maybe there’s a room where everyone’s putting their purse and their jacket and you know that that’s going to be the room where you have like quiet time. Look for quiet corners of a certain room look for an empty hallway and exit door if you’re an indoor venue. If it’s a park look for like an empty space at the park just make a plan of like, okay, if I need to, I can take them to this location of for privacy for them to have a meltdown for regulation, whatever. So you have to, it’s helpful that you kind of have that strategy that that plan that location in mind.Then while they’re at the birthday party to support them provide lots of transition cues and visual supports if it’s necessary, and if you can, so whether this is a checklist of like sequence of events like okay, you guys are gonna go in the pool first and we’re going to do cake then we’re going to open presents and then we’re going to leave so whatever visual supports that’s helpful for your child. You could also bring a visual timer you There’s visual timer apps on your phone or you could just bring a little travel one to help them understand you know, out we’re getting out of the pool in 10 minutes or when the red is all gone on this timer then it’s time to have cake. Whatever you need to do to remind them here’s a huge tip speaking of of food But don’t be ashamed to have to bring or pack your child’s food from home or feed them before the birthday. If you have a picky eater or a child who won’t eat in these busy loud overstimulating places, they may not eat the pizza that’s there, or the hotdogs or the burgers, that the that the friend’s dad is barbecuing, I’m sure it’s great. But if you have a very picky child, they might not be able to eat the food that’s there. And I’d like to give benefit of the doubt that most adults alike understand that kids can be picky. But if this is something you need to advocate for, or prepare the family in advance, you know, if you’re going to bowling alley, and you know that they’re going to serve a bunch of pizza, and you know, your child won’t eat pizza, I would give the parent a heads up, say, Hey, don’t include my child in the head count for the pizza in case you need to because he doesn’t eat pizza, and we’ll just be bringing a sandwich from home. Like, that’s totally fair. And something I would rather have my child like, I don’t want to add hangry to the list of things that can make my child dysregulated. So definitely prioritize that. And don’t feel ashamed about that. Obviously, the last tip, if it were possible in an imperfect world, you can intervene before they fully explode into a meltdown, and take them for a break. So whether that means you go outside, so if you’re indoors, I always like just changing the environment if you can. So if you’re in an indoor place, see if you could take your child outside, or if you’re outside, see if you could find an indoor spot, whether it’s the bathroom or like a lobby area, or just trying to change the scenery of wherever the scene of the crime is, wherever the scene of the meltdown is try to like move them to a different place. Not only for privacy, which is huge, because it’s it’s going to escalate their meltdowns, if parents and other kids are watching them, but also just changing up the environment. And like decreasing the sound, the visual overwhelmed can make a big difference and like resetting the nervous system. So those are all my tips. And hopefully you have some sensory regulation tools that you have with you or on you or something that you know that your child can do like listening to calming music or doing some deep breathing. Those are all my tips for at the birthday party, I have one tip for after the birthday party to manage those behaviors that dysregulation after the birthday party. Honestly, my main tip here is for you, specifically the parents. If your child is sensory, sensitive, or anxious or prone to getting overwhelmed, there’s a chance that they are completely drained and exhausted after a birthday party. And I don’t mean like exhausted like, Oh, they’re going to take a nap. Yeah, some might. But they may be so cognitively drained that they don’t have the capacity to maintain emotional regulation skills. And you might see some increased behaviors after the birthday party. Again, I can relate to this personally. Not only is it a sensory thing, but as an introvert, being around people completely drains me and I don’t even want to talk to my husband, or like read a book to my daughter, what if we get home from a family party. So I very much need quiet and space, I know that about myself. So I can advocate for that. And express that. Kids don’t always know that and it comes out as behaviors. So just keep that in mind. So this doesn’t necessarily give them a pass to be rude, and act a certain way. But having this mindset, this mindset of okay, you know, it makes sense that they’d be dysregulated after a birthday party, it just allows you to show up with compassion, and respond more from from from that lens of of understanding it. So, also sort of like my tips that I gave you for before a birthday party, I just would not overload them with things after a birthday party either. So basically, if you’re going to a birthday party, and you have a neurodivergent child who is prone to dysregulation make the birthday party, the main and only event for the day, if possible. And again, some of you might not be able to adjust your schedules, maybe you have a busy social calendar, or multiple kids with multiple birthday parties to attend in a day. totally get that. If that’s the case. If you can’t adjust your schedule, then adjust your expectations of your child’s behavior. Like it’s it’s one or the other. If you can’t adjust your schedule. If you can’t accommodate, then you have to adjust your expectations of your child we cannot just expect them to like suck it up. And just all of a sudden be fine with it. So While you’re home after the birthday party keep things low key, I would also probably decrease demands on them. So maybe that is the time you let them have dinner on the couch, maybe that’s the night that you do give them an extra book, just knowing that they’re already in the state of dysregulation, I would lean into that and try to co regulate with things that make them feel safe. And that’s not going to add to their cognitive load. Okay, now we’re going to transition. And now we’re talking about your child who’s going to host a birthday party, and your child is the birthday kid. And how do they handle? How do you set your child up for success on the days of their birthday. So all of the tips that I already shared with you for attending a birthday party applies here. So the preparation for it the day of setting them up for success by having a low key morning, all of that is the same. And I would also recommend it here, everything. So you’re going to but we’re going to add on to that. But my my main tip for you, really comes down to the planning of like the events and the sequences of things at the birthday party, and just deciding what traditions you want to keep versus what you want to change or adapt or get rid of altogether. I know there is so much pressure from grandparents, from other parents to host a birthday party a certain way and to include certain rituals and certain traditions. But this birthday is about your child, it’s about nobody else but your child. And so we don’t want to add things that’s going to dysregulate them or add things that they wouldn’t even like just because, quote, it’s their birthday, right. So a lot of neurodivergent kids, especially highly sensitive ones don’t love the attention that they get on their birthday. Of course they would. They’re excited for it and they want to feel special and enjoy a fun day. But the extra birthday greetings or songs or everyone looking at you opening presents or being forced to make eye contact to say thank you and to to have awkward conversations with uncles and aunts. Maybe getting really tight squeezes and hugs from people like that’s a lot for some sensory sensitive kids. So feel free to say please don’t hug or kiss the birthday kid today. She doesn’t want to be touched. She was like a high five or a thumbs up. Some other ideas and things that you can change that might be helpful for your child is you can say we’re not going to have a birthday cake. Maybe your child doesn’t even like cake or pastries. So don’t just get cake for the guests do what your child wants. Maybe instead you’re doing like birthday lollipops, or whatever it is you get to make that decision. And on that topic, maybe your child hates the birthday song but they love blowing out candles and they still want a cake great. You can completely bypass the birthday song just say we’re not singing Happy Birthday, just have the cake already pre cut, let your child blow out the candles somewhere privately or just with you and, and immediate family. So they get to make their birthday wish but not everybody is watching them. And then you just pass out the cake. That’s what we did, honestly at Lily on his birthday. Another tip, if birthday gifts are a trigger of any sort, like maybe seeing them as distracting for your child, or whatever it is. Ask the venue to collect the gifts for you in a basket or place a basket or box outside the door of your house to be placed in so that you can just open the presents with your child and private and that you don’t have to deal with them seeing it or accepting the gift and saying thank you to the family, all of those things that are hard in the moment. So you get to adjust all of those things. You don’t have to force eye contact, polite conversation. And on that note,I really understand the premise behind inviting everybody from the class so no one feels left out. However, as someone who has a neurodivergent child, I know that there are some children who would trigger my daughter’s meltdowns and sensitivities. And hopefully you can make the decision of throwing a birthday party and including people that would only allow your child to feel the most comfortable in their space. All right. Those are all my tips for you about birthday parties. I want to leave you with this reminder. Even with positive feelings, like excitement, and joy and happiness that come with going to birthday parties or having their own birthday party. These emotions can still be dis regulating for some neurodivergent kids. I know that that sometimes is confusing like wait, but they’re so happy it’s their birthday like why are they melting down? Why are they so moody, but feelings can also be really big happy feelings and still be hard to manage for some nervous systems. So just keep that in mind as a reminder. Okay, I hope you got some good tips in this episode. I will be back next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me? I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time.




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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