It really was a cute invitation. It was brightly-colored, covered in exciting graphics, and littered with exclamation marks. Everything about this party invitation screamed fun. It was going to be at a local trampoline park, one of our favorite places, where they were going to serve pizza, one of our favorite foods, and the birthday boy was even one of our favorite friends. It promised to be a great time full of laughs, shrieks, jumps, cake, celebration, and sensory overload.
Which is exactly why we couldn’t go.
I hid the invitation until I could figure out what I was going to tell my son, the kid who had been invited to this jumping-palooza party, the kid with overwhelming anxiety and sensory issues.
It wasn’t the first time we’d had to say no to something we really wanted to do, and I know it won’t be the last. It’s gotten easier, and the invitations have become fewer, though there are still the declines that sting and the occasional ache from not having been invited at all. He notices more than we realize, my boy. He hears the stories being shared of what happened at this party or that event, sees the bonds being formed between friends when they share a memory he wasn’t present for.
Sometimes he shrugs, sometimes he sobs.
Sometimes he recognizes on his own that an event will be too overwhelming for him and the sensory issues he struggles with.
He was recently invited to a robotics competition, a really neat opportunity to be on the floor and interact with the competing teams. It promised to be both exciting and educational… and to have large, loud, overwhelming crowds. My brilliant, curious, cuddly 9-year-old made the decision, on his own, to stay home.
It stinks to say no. Having a sensory processing or anxiety disorder doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like the party, doesn’t sentence you to a life of no fun. It means there are limits, actual physical limits, to what our children can handle, and we have to help them navigate between the fine lines of fun and overwhelming.
It’s hard to stay home, to be the forgotten guest. We can send gifts and texts and cards and congratulations. We can cheer from the sidelines of our homes. We can be thankful we were invited, grateful we were thought of, but that doesn’t lessen the sting of not being present. When there are carnivals or fairs in town, free admission days at the museum, robotics competitions, birthday parties, or any given Saturday at the zoo, we want to go. We want to see the sights, ogle the animals, sample the sweets. When a new movie comes out, we want to be there opening weekend. When a friend is in a musical, we want to support them from the audience. And when birthday parties for friends are held at indoor trampoline parks, we want to be a part of the celebration.
But we just can’t.
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Contrary to what someone on the outside may think, we’re not coddling our children. We’re not rolling them in bubble wrap to protect them against everything, we’re not giving in to their demands and whims. We say “no” a lot more than we say “yes”.
No, we can’t go to that football game.
No, we can’t go have a girl’s day at the salon.
No, we can’t go see our favorite band live.
No, we can’t just go shopping anywhere.
No, we can’t use that toy a grandparent wants to buy.
No, we won’t be on time.
No, we won’t be taking swim lessons this summer.
No, that restaurant won’t work for our family.
No, we can’t make it to Thanksgiving this year.
No, we’re so sorry, but we can’t make it to the birthday party.
Instead of giving in to our child we are standing up for them. We have to place ourselves between them and the situation that threatens to overwhelm, the world full of sensory stimuli that will cause pain, fear, or both. We have to use our own disappointment as a buffer and say “no”.
Every “no,” though, is really a “yes” to our child.
Every time we decline an ill-fitting invitation, we are choosing our child’s needs above our own wants.
The more we protect our children the stronger they become. By saving their energy for a therapy appointment instead of a crowded concert we are equipping and empowering them. Sure, an OT or a counselor isn’t as exciting as a birthday party – there are no cupcakes or goody bags at ours, anyway – but the skills they’re learning are far more valuable.
Over time our kids can recognize the importance of self care over expectations.
Over time our kids can learn to weigh disappointment against wisdom.
Over time our kids will grow, mature, and learn the coping mechanisms and skills that will make the “yes” so much sweeter and all the more bearable.
Allow yourself to mourn the experiences you thought your child would have. I’m an extrovert to the core, I love being around people and excitement, and never dreamed my kids would be anything different.
I want my kids at every party, a part of every memory, cheering on friends spending time with family.
I want to host elaborate holiday meals in our home.
I want my kids to have the kind of experiences I did… but it’s just not in the cards, not for all of them.
If my sensory-sensitive kid did go to that trampoline party, he’d be miserable. If we did host everyone for every holiday, he’d be in pain. If we spent our time accepting all of the invitations lovingly extended to us we’d have a little boy so defensive and overwhelmed that none would be celebrations, and our “yes” would feel more like a punishment. Don’t get caught up in the romantic notions of childhood that you’ve held on to. Reality and sensitivities are what you’ve got, no matter how much you may wish otherwise.
Try creating your own rituals or celebrations for the events you have to decline. Maybe a phone call or one-on-one playdate with the birthday friend, a Skype or FaceTime session with family members during a holiday, or renting a movie you really wanted to see in the theater – complete with popcorn, snacks, and all the snuggly blankets you can pile onto the couch. Wear team colors at home to show support, watch live stream coverage of events, get takeout for special occasions you’d normally mark with meals at a restaurant, donate toys you can’t use, or create your own spa day at home. Follow up your “no” with a “but.”
No, we can’t go to that play, but we can read it together.
No, we can’t attend the parade, but we can watch it on tv in our pajamas.
Extra cuddles, long baths, favorite desserts – you know what your child likes, so find a way to celebrate at home, in comfort, so that special occasions are still special without needing to subject your sweet kiddo to whatever threatens to overwhelm.
To the parents who are home, the parents who have to say “no,” the parents in the car with the overwhelmed child, the parents searching wildly for a quiet corner or a private bathroom…
You are not alone.
You are not forgotten.
You are making the strong, hard choice now that is making your child stronger for later.
That guilt you feel every time you decline an invitation? Let it go. You are allowed to feel disappointed without feeling as though you are disappointing. Anyone who cares enough to invite your child will care enough to understand why they can’t come. In the same vein, don’t allow the guilt of saying “no” make you feel as though you have to explain your answer every time. “No” is a complete sentence, one that any parent is used to saying, but one you’ll have to become especially comfortable with.
It stinks to say no. It’s hard to feel misunderstood, overlooked, and isolated. It’s harder still to watch our children suffer. Remember that every time you say “no” to something that would be overwhelming, overstimulating, and overpowering, you’re saying “yes” to your child’s well-being. Remember that you are protecting your child.
Remember that you are really, truly a great parent.
Latest posts by Jennifer Vail
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