Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive child gets ready to blow out the candles on her birthday cake

Does Your Child Get Overstimulated at Birthday Parties? Here’s What to Do

1 in 3 kids are highly sensitive to their environment, and a birthday party is a recipe for a meltdown.

For many children, a birthday party is a highly anticipated event — there are balloons, cupcakes, music, and entertainment every which way you look. What’s not to love?  

But if your child is more sensitive to their environment, they might get overstimulated and overwhelmed easily — which means birthday parties can be very distressing. They might be having fun until they suddenly hit a wall, get cranky, beg to leave, or even have a full-blown meltdown.

Sound familiar?

If so, don’t worry — sensitivity is a normal, healthy trait, and one that can be an advantage in many situations. It’s also misunderstood. That means that taking time to learn about (and embrace) your child’s sensitivity is the first step in helping them learn to handle stimulating environments. It will also make a massive difference in their wellbeing, not only as a child but when they grow up.

The Science Behind Highly Sensitive Children

Everyone is sensitive to a degree, but some people are more sensitive than others. Roughly 30 percent of people are born more sensitive than average, both physically and emotionally. (About 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity, and 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. All three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered healthy and normal.

Children and adults who fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are called highly sensitive people, or HSPs. They will often be deeply attuned to their physical environment and to the emotions of others. They will often notice subtle details or make connections between ideas that other people miss. They may be bothered by textures, noises, and other things in the environment that other kids seem to shrug off. Often, sensitive children are highly creative and empathetic, and many are deep thinkers. Some researchers believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness.

If your child is a highly sensitive person, they were likely born that way and developed it further in early childhood. They will remain sensitive for life — although as they develop, they can learn how to better manage overstimulation, regulate their strong emotions, and use their powerful sensitive mind to their advantage.

The best way to teach them that is to accept and validate their sensitivity, and help understand why they experience things like birthday parties so differently.

Why Birthday Parties Are Difficult for Highly Sensitive Children

With sensitive kids, the rule of thumb is: a little quieter, a little gentler, and a little more time to get used to something new.

Most kids’ birthday parties are the opposite of that. In fact, the same things that make a birthday fun for most kids are often the biggest challenges for a highly sensitive child. Whether it is your own child’s birthday or someone else’s, here are the most common stressors for sensitive children at birthday parties:

1. Birthday parties are unpredictable and full of surprises.

Highly sensitive children find comfort in routines — they like knowing what to expect and feeling in control. Yet a birthday party is anything but predictable. They are typically full of “fun” surprises and activities. 

As more and more parents abandon the simple home party for the convenience of a “planned-just-for-you” birthday party at a children’s play place, kids are required to acclimate to a new environment of unfamiliar sounds, sights, and people before they even take off their coat.  This can be quite difficult for the HSC, who needs time to observe and warm up to their environment.

2. Birthday parties are overstimulating.

When you think of a child’s birthday party, what comes to mind? Loud music? Excited kids yelling, bouncing, and running around in all directions? An explosion of decorations and balloons everywhere you look? Everyone singing “Happy Birthday” in a crowded room? Party entertainers leading kids through games and activities?

“Simple” is not a word that describes children’s birthday parties these days. As over-the-top birthday parties become the new norm, it is easier than ever for a highly sensitive child to feel overwhelmed and anxious in a birthday party environment.

3. Parties require a lot of social interaction.

Birthdays involve a lot of social pressure, especially if your child is the guest of honor. Children are expected to greet other children and adults, say “Happy Birthday” to the host, dish out “thank you”s, and happily go off and play with other kids.   

Communicating and interacting with other guests can feel very uncomfortable and difficult for a highly sensitive child. They may have trouble saying, ‘Happy Birthday” or interacting with friends, due to being in an unfamiliar, stimulating environment. HSCs typically are much more comfortable interacting one-on-one. Attempting to join in with a group of peers they may or may not know can be extremely challenging for them.   

4. There’s pressure to be “on” and perform.

Activities and organized games can help provide structure at a birthday celebration, but they also coincide with a pressure to perform. HSCs are often reluctant to participate in party games, due to the fact that they place a lot of attention on the player’s abilities and there is high risk for failure — think Musical Chairs, relay races, breaking open a piñata, Freeze Dance, and doing the limbo.  

Imagine feeling completely overwhelmed and then being pushed to play and navigate the rules of unfamiliar games. It’s no wonder why highly sensitive kids shut down, get angry, and/or have meltdowns at birthday parties!

5. Birthday parties put your child in the spotlight.

Most highly sensitive children do not enjoy being the center of attention. There is always the potential for a child to become the focus of attention as a party guest, but it is unavoidable as the birthday boy or girl: Kids wish to play and sit near the birthday child, adults want to ask them questions, and everyone attempts to get a picture with them.

Having to open presents in front of everyone or enduring the song “Happy Birthday” can feel like torture to a child, too, who wants nothing more than to blend in with the crowd. If your HSC cries when people sing to them on their birthday or refuses to blow out the candles, you are not alone. Coupled with all the sensory overwhelm, it can be all too much for a highly sensitive child.

So what can you do to avoid the above when it comes to your highly sensitive child’s birthday? Here are some tried-and-true tips.

How to Prevent Overstimulation at Your Child’s Birthday Party

For highly sensitive children, resilience doesn’t come from being “toughened up.” It comes from being accepted and coached. As the parent of a highly sensitive child, it’s your job to teach them to sense when they’re hitting their limit. When they do, you want them to know they have the power to speak up and take a break or step back from the stimulation. Remember: they are experiencing the whole world at a higher volume than 70 percent of people.

Here are specific strategies we recommend to help your sensitive child do well at birthday parties and other overwhelming events.

1. If it’s your child’s birthday, ask how they would like to celebrate.

Does your highly sensitive child really want a birthday party with their entire class? Maybe they’d prefer to have a small celebration with one or two friends — or perhaps no party at all. This is

your child’s day, not yours or anyone else’s, so it’s best to figure out what they would like to do

to celebrate. What will bring them joy?

If they are too young to communicate what they would enjoy, consider their personality and go from there. Are they comfortable around family members and people they don’t know well, or do they shy away from them?

2. If it’s someone else’s birthday party, talk to your child before you arrive.

The evening before, explain to your child that the party will be fun, but it’s okay if they get tired. A good script to use is, “It will probably be noisy, and there’s going to be a lot of kids there. It’s okay if you want to hang back and watch at first. If there are any activities you don’t want to do, you don’t have to do them. And if you need a break, just let me know. We can go somewhere quiet.”

Talk them through this again on the day of the party, and remind them when you’re on the way there. Then, make good on your promise. Sensitive kids often prefer to observe or hang back before they dive into a busy, chaotic event. Let them do that and back them up if needed: “Oh, he likes to watch the first game before he plays. You all get started.”

If your child says they need a break, have them sit with you (even if it’s with the adults) or offer them somewhere quieter than where the main party is. A different room is often fine. Remind them they can go back to playing whenever they want to, but don’t push them to do so.

Be prepared for the possibility that your child may ask to leave. The right answer will depend on the situation and the child — you know them best. But, it helps to set expectations around this before you go. If it’s easy for you to leave anytime, then tell them in advance that that’s an option. On the other hand, if you plan to be having fun with the other parents while your child plays, talk to them about the options they do have. For example, “When we go tomorrow, we aren’t going to leave until the party is over. But, you can always come sit with me if you need a break.”

3. Have the celebration in a familiar location — your home, or somewhere your child knows well.

If your child decides they would like to celebrate their birthday, make sure the location is somewhere they’ve been before and that they enjoy. If at all possible, have the party at your home. A celebration at home gives you the ability to control the environment and eliminate unnecessary sensory stimulation, like music and bright lights. It is also the place your child likely feels most comfortable.

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4. Be thoughtful in choosing birthday activities.

At a friend’s party, what is the plan for the day? Talk to your child about the games or activities you know are planned. The more they know ahead of the time, the less overstimulating any of it will be.

If it’s your child’s own party, how will you be entertaining guests? A great thing to do is to include your HSC in the planning of the birthday activities — get their input on what they would (and would not) enjoy. You may want to steer clear from games/activities that involve competition or those that put all the attention on your child.

That also means it’s a good idea to discuss singing. Let your child know that people will be singing “Happy Birthday” to them. That puts a lot of attention on them, which can be challenging for highly sensitive kids (even adults, sensitive or otherwise, are often embarrassed when everyone sings the song). It’s okay to tell your child that it’s a fun tradition and that they’ll end up liking it — but ask them what they think. Are they excited about it, or nervous?

It’s okay the skip the singing altogether at your kid’s own birthday; serving cupcakes instead of a cake is an easy way to do this. Or, come up with an alternative that they are comfortable with. 

5. If possible, designate a quiet setting for the party or have some “secret spots” set up where your HSC can regroup.

It is quite possible that your HSC will need a few moments of quiet time to regroup

during their celebration. Talk to them ahead of time and discuss options. Maybe you can even create some type of special HSP sanctuary (decorated, of course) where they can go to get some alone time if need be.

6. Keep it short — and set an end time.

Consider your child’s limits. How long does your child usually enjoy a party or social activity before wanting to leave? Be sure to specify the length of the party on the invitation and stick to it! (It’s all about setting boundaries, and both you and your child will benefit!)

7. Give them downtime after the party.

A birthday party requires a lot from a sensitive child, both physically and emotionally. Allowthem to decompress with some quiet time and keep the rest of the day low-key. (Even though you may usually not give them too much screen time, for instance, this can be an exception.)

If your child or a child you know struggles with birthday parties, check out my debut children’s book for highly sensitive kids, I Don’t Like Birthday Parties.

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