Every kid loves a birthday party, right?
Nope! For a shy or introverted child, big, noisy parties are often events to be dreaded instead of celebrated. So, how can parents mark these important milestones in a way that makes everyone happy?
First of all, you know your child best. Careful listening and discussion will reveal what your birthday boy or girl needs and wants in a celebration.
The home-field advantage
Some kids will feel most comfortable in their own home, celebrating with a few chosen relatives and friends. Hold a small dinner party with the birthday child’s favorite meal as the main dish. You can still make an intimate gathering special with decorations, a fun game or two, plus a birthday cake.
Keep it small
Introverted kids often would prefer to have one or two close friends instead of a gaggle of playmates. “We keep parties very small, with three or four friends at most,” Alycia, mom of a shy daughter, says.
A simple after-school playdate with a couple of friends at home could be the perfect birthday celebration. Plan one or two activities, serve cake or cupcakes and call it done!
One mom described her experience when she threw her 3-year-old introvert a birthday party with five other preschoolers:
“It was the worst party! I believe she hit one of her friends, and by the end of the party, I was crying, too. Now that she is older and I’m more trusting of my own instincts, I ask her what she wants and she plans every party with my help.”
"Don’t look at me!"
Present opening and the "Happy Birthday" song can be excruciating experiences for kids who hate having all eyes on them. An easy solution is simply to have the child open the gifts later, after the guests have gone home. Just make sure you or your child send thank-you notes, so friends know that their gift was appreciated.
The candles, cake and birthday song present a more difficult problem, because this practice is so expected.
Some kids don’t actually like cake, and serving a non-traditional treat such as doughnuts or ice cream can be a hit (a bonus is that guests won’t expect candles).
If you do serve cake, make a dramatic entrance by carrying the cake into the room as the guests sing, so that all eyes are on the cake instead of on the birthday girl or boy. Or dispense with the candles and song entirely. Before the event, let your child blow out the candles with just the family present. Take a picture to preserve the memory, then cut up the dessert. Handing out slices of cake or cupcakes at the party can circumvent the expected singing and candles.
Games or no games?
Planning with your child is crucial to a happy birthday. Let them choose what activities they would like. Sometimes just free play in the backyard is plenty, and won’t put anyone in the spotlight.
On the other hand, a busy schedule of games and activities can be helpful to a kid who would prefer less pressure to interact with his or her peers. Again, let the birthday kid choose; they will know what is most comfortable for them.
“My shy daughter always liked parties where there were things to distract guests,” mom Gretchen says. “The attention had been drawn away from her and the activity became the emphasis. I never had games that won prizes because she hated the tension of competition.”
Get out of the house
Some kids prefer not to have a lot of people on their home turf.
Mom Tiffany held a party for her shy daughter outside of their home. “Having a bunch of girls in her 'space' or room seemed stressful to her,” she says. “My daughter loved having a movie party. They had junk food and we didn't open presents in front of the crowd. They had a blast in the theater and it was no pressure.”
Sometimes, it’s easier when all of the partygoers are engaged in an organized activity outside of the home. Try an art-making party at a ceramics or painting studio. Bowling, bounce houses, a science museum or a laser-tag space are other options for those kids who don’t mind a noisy atmosphere. Taking a few friends to the movies is another fun birthday treat.
Manage your own expectations
Lastly, remember who the party is for. It can be hard for an extroverted parent who is looking forward to throwing a birthday blowout to scale down their expectations. Through careful planning and listening, your shy child can still have a celebration to remember that makes everyone happy.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016, and updated in May 2019.