UPDATED January 2017: When your child has special needs, planning a birthday party takes a lot of extra planning and special considerations. These expert tips will help make it happier for all.
Joanna Dreifus, a New York City parent and mom of two shares her top tips for helping parents enjoy birthday parties for their child with special needs, even when it's hard. These tips will help make the birthday party of your child with special needs easier for you and ultimately happier for them, too.
During the consultations I have with parents who have a child or children with special needs, I advise them on many topics including evaluations, diagnoses, therapies, and schools. But sometimes the most memorable discussions are poignant ones about milestones with a child with special needs. One of those milestones is the child’s birthday.
Our children’s birthdays are meant to be a time to celebrate their accomplishments, their growing up, their marking another “lap” completed in their path of growing up. And to look forward to what’s to come in the next year.
But as I’ve heard from many parents—sometimes the birthday of your child with special needs brings up uncomfortable feelings such as:
My child is not where I thought he/she would be developmentally at this age.
It is hard to see other kids at this age accomplishing so much/doing so well, while my child lags behind or suffers.
My child cannot enjoy his/her own celebration due to anxiety, sensory issues, obsessive thoughts, impulsivity, or other issues.
My child’s birthday just reminds me how “different” this childhood is from what I expected my child to go through—and I worry the upcoming year will be more of the same.
If you’ve ever thought these things on the birthday of your child with special needs, you are not alone. Many clients tell me how stressful a child's birthday can become if you have, for example, a child who can not stand anyone singing "Happy Birthday," can not sit still long enough to enjoy pizza or cake with friends, or has an unexplainable meltdown when given gifts by friends and relatives. It can make a birthday feel extra sad, not extra "happy" at all...not just for the birthday child, but also for you as a parent.
These are some tips that have helped parents in your situation, and that can make that nerve-wracking birthday a bit brighter:
Know your child’s limits. Does your child get overwhelmed by crowds or big parties? Keep the party, if you have one, small. Do you know that old adage that you should invite the same number of kids as the age of the birthday party? Abide by that—or think even smaller. Keep the celebration short, too. An hour is plenty. Three-hour parties can be invitations for meltdowns.
Redefine ‘party.’ By the way, your child’s birthday party doesn’t need to be an actual party. It can be sitting at the kitchen table with some balloons, snacks, and a few friends or relatives. It can be a special outing to your child’s favorite park or playground.
Whatever your child wants to do most and makes him/her happiest is your best bet—and if that’s not a party, that’s okay.
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Indulge your child’s special interests. Sure, you may want your child to have a themed birthday like other kids have (Disney princesses, anyone?). But think about what your child likes best. It is his or her day to celebrate. If he only wants books about subways as a birthday gift, indulge him. Do what you can to make your child happy on his or her special day.
Keep your own expectations low. Try to remember that it may be a tough day for you. Maybe plan a special treat for yourself. Ask friends for support if you need to. Don’t fret if the birthday plans—whether a party, a special meal, or gift opening—doesn’t go according to plan. This is one day you should definitely go with the flow and not fight what happens. Let your child take the lead.
Write your child a birthday letter. This is a very special tradition in many families. Every year, write your child a letter about what he or she was like during the past year. It’s a time to jot down the funny things they said or did, the outings you enjoyed together the most, or even just their favorite foods or games. Keep it positive; it will be a good reminder for you about all the fun moments you had this year—and it’ll be a treasured keepsake for your child years later.
Put your ‘special needs blinders’ on. By this, I mean don’t compare your kid to other kids. Don't think about what they can or can't do. There are 364 other days of the year that you worry about that. Celebrate where they are and how far they have come, not how much further they need to go.
Give yourself a pat on the back. Parenting any child is a tough job. Raising children with special needs can be exponentially harder. Your accomplishment of acing another year as a parent to a child or children with special needs is something to celebrate too. And so is your child’s progress during that year—because it is, in very large part, thanks to your support and love. Be proud of yourself.
Joanna Dreifus, a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, is the founder of Special Kids NYC.
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