For children who are biologically predisposed to becoming anxious or over-stimulated, a party can indeed present issues. However, we can use special occasions, such as parties, to desensitize our children by preparing them in a manageable step-by-step process. Just as you would not expect your child to become an expert at playing soccer in one shot, many children are not equipped to handle special occasions immediately.If you do have an anxious child, there are several things that can help before a party. Parents can teach their child calm breathing techniques. Have your child breathe in through her nose for 4 seconds and then out through her mouth for 4 seconds. Parents can even model the importance of doing relaxation exercises by setting a good example.
Relaxing imagery is another type of relaxation technique that has been proven to be effective. You can have your child imagine that they are on a beach or in another relaxing arena such as a forest or park. Walk them through the process by having them imagine that their body and mind are relaxing in the special place. Many books have been written that can assist parents in the visualization process. These types of exercises help children feel that they are in control of their anxiety.Tool boxes are also great for coping. Tool boxes are special boxes that a child can make. These boxes hold special relaxation items such as koosh balls, silly putty, drawing utensils, calming music, gum or photos. When a child feels anxious, she knows that she can look into the box and find something soothing to play with. This gives a child a sense of control over her anxiety.
Parents should present anxiety as a separate entity. It does not have to follow your child everywhere. It does not represent your child. Your child can learn special skills that will help her battle the anxiety.Once you have gotten through the initial relaxation exercises with your child, it is always helpful to role-play situations with children. Just as adults, children fear the unknown and the unexpected. Although you cannot predict all events, parents can predict certain things. For instance, parents can rehearse initial greetings with a child. Also, parents can role-play events such as where they can sit, what they can say, what to do if they need a break from the crowd. If this is a new setting and you have an opportunity to visit the place prior to the party, this may also help alleviate the child’s anxiety.
Once the party is over, make sure that you provide your child with plenty of positive reinforcement. Going to a party is not an easy task for an anxious child. Celebrate the small accomplishments that your child has made. It is better to have your child go to a party for a short time than to avoid the situation all together. The more a child avoids situations, the more anxiety they will develop in regard to the situation.If your child continues to struggle with anxiety despite your every effort to prepare them for social situations, it may be beneficial to enroll them in a Social skills group. Perhaps, they may need some extra help from a professional in this arena.
Natasha Edelhaus is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (and museum educator) with a private practice in Stoughton, MA. She can be reached at (781) 864-0539.