A reader named Catherine wrote on the About.com Kids' Parties Facebook wall: "Do you have any advice on your site about planning a party for a shy child? A friend was asking. His daughter is turning 4 and is afraid to participate at parties she goes to, but still wants to have a party on her own birthday."
Great question, Catherine. Birthday parties can be stressful situations for kids who are shy, and the nerves are only compounded when it's the shy child's own birthday rather than a friend's celebration.
On top of that, as tuned into your kid's needs as you normally are, it can be difficult to pay close attention to her signs of distress while you're also trying to organize games, serve cake and entertain other parents.
Addie Smith, a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist in Wayne, Penn., suggests talking over all the party details with the child before the actual event.
"The shy child should be involved in the planning of the party as much as is age appropriate to help him or her feel empowered," she says.
Smith also advises considering a child's shyness when deciding on the party's size.
"Parents should use their best judgment, as they know their children better than anyone, as to whether to scale down the number of kids, length of party and location of party," she says.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, N.J.-based psychologist and author of "What About Me: 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister)" and other books, concurs that planning is key. She offers these tips:
- Let your child help plan the games or activities, so she knows exactly what to expect. Your child may even want to make a list (with words or pictures) of what will happen at the party. For very shy children, you may want to plan activities that don't require a lot of talking, such as crafts or watching a movie.
- Keep the guest list small--maybe just two friends.
- Plan coping strategies for the "tough" parts. For instance, if the child feels very self-conscious when everyone sings happy birthday, she could stare at the candles or give herself a little hug. If the guest arrival time is the hard part, give your child a job to do during that time, such as giving the guest a name tag, a printed schedule or a balloon. Practice the coping strategies, so your child feels confident using them.
Jamie Rishikof, who practices mother-and-family psychology in Wellesley, Mass., offers another piece of advice for the parents of shy kids:
"If a child is truly shy, it may work to form a plan where a similar code word can be devised between parent and child," he says. "In this case, either can initiate a similar 'break' at the earliest signs of anxiety, before it gets out of hand, so that the child can step away from the crowd for 5 to 10 minutes for their anxiety to simmer down."
Do you have a shy child, too? What strategies have you used to help them enjoy social situations such as birthday parties?