When it all gets a bit much for the little people: Birthdays

Birthdays! Anticipation, excitement, fun, presents! Friends and parties and sugar and noise! All a fantastic recipe for challenging behaviours from the little people.

Add to this parents who are possibly somewhat distracted and stressed by their efforts to make sure that

A. The toddler doesn’t smash his hand straight into the middle of the cake
B. The dogs/cats/children don’t eat all the food before anyone arrives
C. The perfectly thrown together presents don’t get crushed to pulp by a hyperactive preschooler jumping on them
D. Everyone makes it to the venue (if any) on time and alive
E. (Fill in gap with appropriately disastrous and destructive occurrence)

And the result? Explosive preschooler cupcakes with a side of volatile-parent mousse.

My oldest just turned four. Now, while we had a fairly low key, slow day sort of birthday, it was still a terribly exciting break from the norm, and I think this was the first year that he really ‘got’ it. The first year that he really had a sense of anticipation that something would happen in the next couple of days. The first year that he had a sense of expectation about what a birthday could mean: cake! presents! a party! And, predictably enough, given a 4 year old’s level of emotional control, reason and psychological development, we walked together through some challenging behaviour (screaming; emotional breakdowns over seemingly small happenings; hyperactivity in inappropriate places; lack of consideration, including in a way that could result in injury to himself or his younger brother). In this instance, my son did not always know how, or have the ability, to express his emotions in a way that was ok.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s ok that he experienced this. It’s even ok that he behaved like this. He will learn to regulate his emotions by experiencing them. It will happen repeatedly. And then again. And that too is ok. But the whole point here is to learn through it and to get to a point where thoughts, feelings and desires can be expressed gently, respectfully and considerately; where cooperation happens; and where no one is endangered!

So here are a few ideas I use to make birthdays smoother and more enjoyable for everyone:

  1. Plenty of sleep for EVERYONE! Mum and Dad function much better and are much less impatient if they get enough sleep too.
  2. Pay attention. When the kids come and ask the same million questions that they asked five minutes ago, give them attention. Look at them when they speak and when you respond. Take the time for them. When they ask you to come eat the pretend snack they made, go do it. Even when you are wadding waist deep through birthday preparations, dinner, the laundry that should have been done last week and the chewed up grapes that your 18 month old has decided to spit in little dollops all around the house.
  3. Give the kids something to do firstIt could be anything: a favourite mess-free activity such as drawing, stickers, playing with balloons or dress up is ideal. Alternatively you could give them preparation ‘helping’ jobs (that won’t ruin any surprises) such as wiping down tables, fetching and carrying or choosing items for party bags if you give them. Sit down with them, get them started, and once they are focused make your escape.
  4. Limit pre-party sugar intake. A party is absolutely a party. I have no qualms about letting my kids eat a (slightly) excessive amount of cake on the odd occasion, but in the run up I need more calm that I would get if they were already sugared up.
  5. If your child does start behaving in a challenging way, stop, take a breath, be patient and spend some time with them. Play cars for 10 minutes, pop out into the garden and watch them jumping as high as they can jump, pretend to be superheros together, play a simple board game or go for a run around the block. This will help them to focus on something, and potentially channel a little bit of that energy into an activity.
  6. Have some calm-down tools close to hand. What works for one child may not work for another, but having a pre-prepared line of response in case of a full blown meltdown really helps. (I hope to write some more about calm-down techniques in the near future).
  7.  Do as much as possible in advance. Pretty obvious really: the less you have to do in the minute, the better.
  8. Plan the party around nap times. As much as this is possible, it really helps, both if you have a toddler and if those invited are bringing a toddler. Sleepy toddlers do not add good things to the mix!
  9. Keep the rest of your schedule as normal as possible. A sense of predictability and routine helps everyone stay calm and know what is happening.

Let me know in the comments what you think, if any of these have worked for you or any extra ideas you have. Here’s to happy birthdays!