As an ADHD coach, how to handle birthday parties is a topic that I talk about with families quite frequently.

Here are the main areas that come up in relation to birthdays and ADHD:

  1. Navigating the overwhelm of planning a social event as a parent with ADHD.
  2. Planning a birthday party that will be positive and supportive for a child with ADHD.
  3. How to support your child in attending a birthday party that might strain social skills, sensory needs, and self regulation.
  4. How to support your child when they aren’t invited to a birthday and they are feeling the intensity of triggered rejection sensitivity. 

This is such a big topic and as a result, in today’s post we will tackle just the topic of planning for a party held for your own child. Stay tuned for future content on the topic of attending birthday parties and social gatherings.

Navigating the Overwhelm of Planning a Social Event as a Parent with ADHD

Let’s start by acknowledging that planning an event can be overwhelming for an individual with ADHD. Planning an event that considers your child’s unique needs and your own is extra challenging. The many moving pieces, fear of over and under attendance, rejection sensitivity, decisions to make, time to manage, and tasks to complete add up to A LOT. I think it is important to validate that if you feel that birthday parties are hard and stressful that that is normal and even expected. Let’s also acknowledge that choosing to skip birthday parties with friends can be the best option for many families and that this is ok. When I surveyed my instagram community several parents shared that they offer their children a choice of a party or a family trip or activity and their children typically choose the special family time. I love this option so very much! Today’s post is for the parents that have decided that throwing a party is the best idea for their family and child and they also want to do it in a way that is supportive of ADHD and reduces overwhelm all around.

There are two key areas to support in the planning process: making choices that support your ADHD, supporting your executive functioning as you plan. Let’s look at strategies to support both.

Make Choices that Support your ADHD

When choosing a guest list, location, duration, and activity with your child for their party I recommend considering your needs as well as your child’s. If you have overstimulation and sensory challenges work those into the planning process. We don’t need to push ourselves through highly stressful, uncomfortable situations for our children when there are so many options that meet the needs of the child and the parent. Here are a couple of areas that I recommend considering early in the planning process.

1. Parents or No Parents:

After the age of 5 it is appropriate to host parties that have parents in attendance or not in attendance. I recommend clarity on the invitation to avoid that awkward moment where your guests aren’t sure what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

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I recommend considering what causes you more stress, managing the behaviour of the many little guests or feeding and entertaining adults. Both options have great pros such as parents in attendance present to support their child with food choices, washroom trips, and behaviour; whereas parents not in attendance allows you to only focus on entertaining and feeding your small guests.

Note, after age 8 I have found that most parents assume that it is just children to attend. If you want to host a family focused party after this age make sure to share that on the invite.

2. Location

Do you find it overwhelming to clean and prepare your home for guests? Do you find it stressful when children are climbing on and playing with everything you own? If so I highly recommend hosting your child’s party out of the home.

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Do you find it stressful to pack and transport food and decor? If so you might prefer to host in the familiar space of your home.

At home parties: Try inviting a service into your home to add some magical birthday fun without the added stress of having to do everything yourself.

We used to bring amazing sleepover tents into our living room for our daughter’s recent party. It was low stress, lots of fun, and entertained the birthday girl and her friend for the entire evening.

Other options like this include hiring a local service to come and run an activity such as a tie dye station.

In the community parties: When choosing a location consider your needs alongside your child’s. What do YOU find overstimulating and exhausting? What budget feels comfortable for you and your family? What environment allows you the level of control that makes you feel comfortable?

3. Length of the Guest List

It is ok to set limits that work for you! Pressure to invite every child in a class can exist in the younger years. This is not something that you have to participate in. Decide what you feel comfortable hosting and work with your child to select a guest list. I do recommend considering the size of your child’s core social group and ensure that your child isn’t inviting most of a social group and excluding only one or two children. I also love looking at a group party as an opportunity to encourage your child to to include any children in their class that may often be skipped over for a party invite.

Supporting Your Executive Functioning as you Plan

Party planning is one of those big multi step tasks that strain executive functions. The fact that birthday parties slip into our lives alongside the rest of the lengthy to-do items of life means that it can feel like you are already stretched. Here are my go-to event planning executive functioning strategies.

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1. Break the planning process down into small tasks: Planning an event can be overwhelming, but breaking the process down into small, manageable tasks can make it more manageable. Make a list of all the tasks you need to complete, and tackle them one at a time.

2. Start planning early: Give yourself lots of time to avoid the overwhelm of trying to get everything ready last minute.

3. Set realistic goals: Be realistic about what you can achieve and set achievable goals. It’s better to plan a smaller party that you can manage rather than trying to plan a larger event that may be too overwhelming.

4. Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends or family members. They may be able to help with tasks like sending invitations, setting up decorations, or preparing food.

5. Use tools and technology to help you: There are many apps and tools available that can help you with the planning process. For example, you can use a to-do list app or a calendar app to keep track of tasks and deadlines.

6. Simplify the event: Consider simplifying the birthday party. You don’t need hours of scheduled activities. Remember that kids usually love time just to free play.

7. Plan downtime after the party: Plan some downtime for yourself after the party to decompress and recharge. I always recommend scheduling with space for at least an evening if not an extra day to recharge before being thrust into the next week’s tasks.

Planning a Birthday Party that will be Positive and Supportive for a Child with ADHD

Now let’s talk about considering the unique needs of throwing a party for a child who has an ADHD diagnosis. Here are the things I like to consider when making planning decisions:

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1. Overstimulation: Birthday parties can lead to sensory overload for children with ADHD, with lots of noise, bright lights, and many people. This can be overwhelming for the child and can make it challenging to focus on the party’s activities. I like to consider environments that have options for a child to take a break and if your child really wants a sensory heavy environment keeping the duration super short.

2. Social Stress: Children with ADHD may have difficulty with social interactions, which can cause anxiety in social situations like birthday parties. They may struggle to understand social cues or have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations with peers. I prefer smaller groups whenever possible. For my own daughter’s recent celebration we chose to just have 1 friend.

3. Difficulty Regulating Emotions: Children with ADHD can have intense emotions, making it challenging to manage behavior in a social setting like a birthday party. Preparing your child ahead of time, knowing your child’s triggers, and having a plan for how you will support them through big emotions can help to keep the day running smoothly. Talking to your child ahead of time to create a plan for what they want to do if they are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or out of control can help them to know what to do and how to ask for support.

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4. Executive Functioning Challenges: Children with ADHD can have difficulty with executive functioning skills, such as cognitive flexibility, working memory, organizing, and following through with tasks. This can make it challenging to participate in party games or follow the rules. I recommend spending time before the party preparing your child for what will happen and clarifying expectations very clearly before the big day.

During the party in the heat of excitement check in frequently to clarify expectations, the plan, and any rules around games and activities.

5. Transitions: Transitions are notoriously difficult for children with ADHD. On a special day when emotions are already high I recommend allowing lots of time for transitions and reducing them. This means keeping things simple. Lots of activities means lots of transitions. Take a look at your plan and then think about the flow. Does it feel too full, can you reduce any steps, do you have time in case transitions take longer than planned?

6. Surprises: Surprises strain cognitive flexibility. I recommend avoiding them for the most part when planning a party for a child with ADHD. Most children with ADHD prefer to be a part of the plan and enjoy watching others enjoy a surprise more than being surprised. 

7. Anxiety Triggers: Many children with ADHD navigate coexisting anxiety. I recommend keeping your child’s unique anxiety triggers front of mind when making a birthday party plan. The goal is to keep things feeling safe and familiar while experiencing the specialness of the day. Considering certain sensory, food, social, and environmental triggers and planning around them can help the day to run smoothly.

Ideas From the @behaviourcoach Community!

Now that I have created a lengthy list to consider, possibly even creating some overwhelm, I am going to share a few of the amazing ideas that were shared within my Instagram community as a reminder that all of these thoughts are intended to lead towards something simple and special. Remember that the goal is actually to keep things simple and without overwhelm.

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  • Give the option of a special family trip or activity instead of a friend party and skip this whole post!
  • Try an art/pottery based activity for a small group of 4-5 children. 
  • Meet outside for a short party with few rules and lots of movement/games.
  • Meet up at a playground with everyone running around.
  • Invite one or two friends over for water balloons in the backyard.
  • Stipulate on the invite that it is a low key party and then meet up at a park for cupcakes and games.
  • Use these guidelines: away from home, activity focused, and limited in time.
  • Invite 1 friend to dinner and a movie.
  • Invite 1 friend to a sleepover party.
  • Invite only 3 friends for a beach meet up, swim in the sea, then birthday cake.
  • Defined time limit at a climbing gym, trampoline park, or bouncy castle activity place.

Have Fun!

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