One Boy, Five Birthdays

No matter how hard I try – and I have tried, very, very hard – I can’t seem to remember how exactly I found out about Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child. But I will never forget the words that led me to check it out.

My child hates birthday parties,  said someone on the internet.

What? A child, other than mine, hates birthday parties? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I read it over and over again assuming I may have misunderstood. But I hadn’t. There it was, a real comment from a real mother of a child who hated parties.

Yes, some kids do actually hate birthday parties: A Highly Sensitive Child and Birthday Parties

For the first time since my son was born, I felt like we may not be alone in this. We were not the only ones who had to explain to other parents why we couldn’t go to their children’s birthday parties, ever. We weren’t the only ones who had to explain why our son was sitting in a corner and crying at the ONE party we did go to, when all the other children were having fun.

So I quickly read the rest of this comment, which I had stumbled upon by pure chance, and there was the name of the book that changed this lady’s life. Almost immediately, I went to Amazon and bought it.

Birthday parties were bad for us, and not many people can say the same thing. There was a time when I would find a party invitation every week in my son’s backpack, and every time I’d feel nauseous.

Ugh, what am I going to say this time?

We had missed every party we’d been invited to, and I’d used every excuse I could think of. To make matters worse, all the other moms were now friends, and I was always given the cold shoulder during morning school drop offs.

Yeah, birthdays were very bad for us.

When it came to our birthdays, be it mine, my husband’s, our relatives’, and even our son’s, we always had to exercise great caution in the way we did things. If the party was at our place, we tried to time it so that our son was either asleep, or awake, energized and content. If not, then we’d either come up with an excuse to take him to another room during the singing and clapping, or ask that we do very little singing and preferably no clapping at all. With time, our family started to understand how important it was for us to avoid certain traditional rituals because the consequences were quite unpleasant for everyone and certainly not worth it.

We celebrated our little boy’s fifth birthday last Saturday, and we gave him a proper party with loads of people, balloons, games, music, singing, and clapping. We celebrated that way because that’s what he wanted. And as I watched him play with his friends that afternoon, I couldn’t believe how far we’d come in just five years. This year he screamed, only this time his screams were those of sheer excitement and joy.

Throughout most of the party, I found myself trying to remember how the last four birthdays went down; what exactly happened, what we’d been expecting, what we had to say to the folks who stood there, completely baffled as to why a child could be this unhappy at his own party. And quite honestly, had someone told us that our son’s fifth birthday party would be this much fun, we wouldn’t have believed it.

Would you have believed it if this is what your child’s birthday parties looked like?

One Boy, Five Birthdays: A Highly Sensitive Child and Birthday Parties

First Birthday

It had been a year since our baby was born. We couldn’t believe he was already one. Although everyone pointed out how fast the year had gone by, we didn’t feel the same way. That first year was rough, and it felt more like about ten. The reason why we couldn’t believe our son was one wasn’t because time had flown. It hadn’t. It was because we were hopeful that things would start to get easier. One was a big deal. One year olds slept through the night, and they had better tolerance of the world and of the people around them, and they were easier to manage than infants.

Things, however, would not change today because he was now one, and so for his birthday celebration, we had to take some precautions. Plus, this wasn’t really a celebration for him, but more like a celebration for us and everything we’d accomplished (and survived) in that year. After all, a one-year-old couldn’t care less if we celebrated or not. He had no idea what was going on. So we told our families that we’d have some cake over at our house and sing and blow out some candles. We knew how bad things got when lots of people came over at the same time, and especially when they got loud, and even more so if he hadn’t had a proper nap yet. So we worked on our timing to ensure he was in perfect-as-can-be shape to have some loud relatives over. And just to be safe, we had his favorite Baby Einsteins DVD in the player in case we needed to calm him. Just in case.

Things went surprisingly well. There was no crying or screaming. We sang and clapped softly. We had cake, we talked, we laughed. And baby was smiling most of the time.

At the hand puppets in the television.

Second Birthday

The second birthday is an even bigger deal. Even though at two they still don’t really know what’s going on and they still couldn’t care less if you celebrated the big day, this time they’re aware enough to actually enjoy a good celebration and some cool gifts. So we decided to do the same thing as we did the year before, but to try and make it more fun for him because now, we thought we knew what he liked.

Two year olds like parties and cake and presents, right? So went all out and made and extra special cake; the only thing he liked about it was the McQueen car I had use to decorate it. We got loads of presents that were wrapped with beautiful, brightly colored paper; he didn’t even attempt to open one. I got him a nice big helium balloon; it scared the living lights out of him.

Our timing didn’t work out this time around. By the time he woke from his nap, everyone was already there. There was crying; there was arched-back-screaming. But the player was ready with his favorite DVD, just in case this happened.

Sure enough, the only thing that made him happy was that hand puppet in the television.

Third Birthday

Shortly before our son’s third birthday, my husband had to move away for work, and sadly, we had to celebrate this big event without him.

To make up for Daddy’s absence, I wanted to throw my son an extra special party and give him everything he wanted. We browsed Pinterest together for weeks, going through hundreds of Mickey Mouse, Cars and Peppa Pig cakes until we found the perfect one.

We invited practically all our relatives, close and distant. At the time I thought surrounding him by people who loved him was a brilliant way to make sure he didn’t miss his father’s presence.

When the party food was ready, the garden decorated with “regular” balloons, and our guests had arrived (some having driven over two hours to be there), my little boy decided to hide in the house, and nothing I could do or say would get him to join the party. He was overwhelmed. Truly and completely overwhelmed. On the one hand he was so happy to see some of the people he loved most that he couldn’t control his emotions; but on the other, he was intimidated by the number of people who were waiting outside for him, enthusiastically calling out his name.

I felt like an idiot. How could I have thought that having all these people over would be good for him? Why didn’t I know that he’d already figured out that balloons pop and the sound they make is excruciatingly loud and scary.

At some point he did join us thanks to the bright red remote control Ferrari his grandparents had got him, so we decided to wrap things up and sing. And for the first time after we’d finished singing, my son quickly put his hands on his ears and screamed like something had bit him. Everyone stopped clapping and watched, not really sure what to make of all this.

I was embarrassed; I was angry; and I was really sad about what I’d put my baby through. That was the day I started to dislike birthday parties with quite a passion.

Later than night, my sister and a very good friend of the family’s came bearing gifts that my little one loved. To him, the party started at 8 o’clock that night, when he got to enjoy his gifts with only two people he loved deeply. No singing, no clapping, no cake, no balloons, no pressure. He was really excited at that point, but it wasn’t too much for him to bear. It was just enough to make him happy and keep him up untill 11.

Fourth Birthday

Birthday number four was just around the corner, and I was scared. True, there had been loads of play dates that year, and our little boy had made such incredible progress that I could hardly recognize him, but still. I could never forget how the last birthday went and how upset, and possibly traumatized, he was. I wondered if he remembered, but I could never bring myself to ask him.

I did however ask him what he wanted to do that year to celebrate. “I want to have a pirate birthday party and I want to invite everyone!” was his answer.

I tried to explain to him what ‘everyone’ meant. I told him it would be loud, and it would be crowded. I told him there would be singing and clapping. But he wouldn’t budge. He would have it no other way.

We’d been to one party  a month before his birthday, the first party in a long, long time, and although we were worried and on edge the entire time, our son had a really good time! He played games with the other kids, and even put up with the singing and the clapping. AND he got in a ten foot trampoline with about fifteen other kids. My jaw dropped at the sight of him happily bouncing in there with everyone else, and it stayed down throughout the rest of the party. Maybe this is it, I thought.

And so we decided to go for the party that he wanted, and I have to say that both my husband and I were impressed at how well he kept it together. We must’ve had about sixty guests (his friends, their siblings, and their parents). Sixty people sang happy birthday and then clapped, and all he did was blow out the candles. Granted, he did play by himself most of the time, very happy with one of the cars he’d received that day; he stayed away from the few balloons we had, and didn’t have any cake, but that was it.

He wasn’t super excited and carefree like most kids are at parties, but he was content, and that was more than we could’ve ever hoped for!

Fifth Birthday

After a very successful fifth birthday party we was fun for everyone there, and only one meltdown after everyone had left which only lasted about ten minutes, our little boy went to bed happy and grateful for everything we’d done for him.

And to show his gratitude, he gave us a trophy he said we both deserved.

One Boy, Five Birthdays:  A Highly Sensitive Child and Birthday Parties

It may have been the tiniest trophy we’d ever seen, but it certainly was the biggest award we’d ever received.

What about you? How does your child cope with parties? Please share your stories with us in the comments section. They might make someone feel a whole lot better!


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20 thoughts on “One Boy, Five Birthdays

  1. Emily-Jane

    My eldest was never keen on birthday parties. She spent her entire first birthday bash under the table and her second birthday screaming at any one who even dare smile at her. She also had a phobia of communal singing so happy birthday was out! So third birthday we had a much smaller picnic affair and thankfully she loved it!

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      It’s only very recently that I’ve started hearing about other kids who don’t enjoy parties. It’s so strange that just a couple of years ago, it seemed ALL the kids were party-crazy! And where we come from, birthdays are like weddings! Catering, music, entertainment, mascots… ridiculous. Even though most kids apparently like this (which is why the birthday party industry is so big), I find it overwhelming. A picnic birthday is just lovely!

  2. Mona Duna

    Leila, your stories were describing my daughter’s birthday parties and the parties she was invited to years ago. I would also feel nauseated whenever she got a birthday invitation. The singing, clapping, camera flashing, and sometimes having characters at the parties such as Barney, scared the life out of her as well. We didn’t celebrate birthday parties with her until she was in her elementary years. They had to be small too, 5-6 girls.
    One strategy I used to ease her stress before we head out to a birthday part was to draw on a poster board all the things that we might expect. The facility, if we were familiar with it, the cake, candles, people and all the things that might happen. What she can do if she’s feeling overwhelmed. That seemed to relief her anxiety a bit. By age 5 things have tarted to get better as you had mentioned.
    As an adult right now, she still prefers small celebrations for her birthday. After all, she takes after both her parents.
    I’m so glad Luca had a fantastic birthday party. It speaks volumes of the patience and understanding that you have been exercising with him. Happy Birthday and may you enjoy many more bashes with him and his brother!!

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      Mona, thank you so much for reading and for a sharing your story. Preparing children way before a big event seems to be a strategy many people have adopted; knowing what to expect helps them deal with the situation. Writing things down or drawing charts are an excellent way to prepare them as well. I’ve done this a few times, and I need to do it more.

      Patience and understanding… It’s not always easy; some days are tough. But knowing what an impact these two things have on our children helps us try to harder, no matter how difficult it can be.

      Thank you so much Mona for your lovely words!

  3. freebutfun

    My children may not be more sensitive than the average but my brother is, so I have been wondering about how to include everyone and make it good for all parties involved. So there are adults too, who care about you/your children but have a hard time with loud noises, crowds and loads of dynamics.

    One good solution for us has been to celebrate outdoors in the garden! That way both my brother as well as my kids, when they were smaller and got tired of all the people, could also wonder off a bit to the side without anyone wondering too much.

    How fantastic that your son was able to enjoy his last birthday!

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      Funny how we’ve always noticed that some people tend to shy away from the crowds but never knew why. The label “shy” was used a lot and it turns out it had nothing to do with sensitivity. 20% of the population is highly sensitive, so we’re all bound to know someone who is, and now we can finally understand why crowds bother them. I was always told I was shy, and although some social situations did bother me, I never felt the label really fit.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your story! Nice to see that your family changed things around to make sure everyone was happy and comfortable!

  4. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist

    Happy fifth birthday! It’s great how they can grow and change as they mature. And love the trophy 🙂

    But it’s true, and in fact I think birthday parties must be stressful for lots of kids. We didn’t have one except a bit of cake with family until P was four. Luckily either the other parents were doing the same thing and/or we got away with it due to moving and not knowing anyone. By the 4th birthday party (in the park) he was ok with the activities we’d planned.

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      It helps when you don’t have social pressure to deal with as well. Where we come from, birthdays are a BIG deal! I have been to parties thrown for babies turning 1 that were significantly bigger than my wedding (which doesn’t say much because we didn’t have a “wedding”, but you know what I mean). Themes, gigantic cakes, gift registries, teams of party organizers, entertainers… And so having to not show up every single time did make us the odd ones out.

      I still would never throw a crazy party like that, for many, many reasons, but I’m happy that he now enjoys having a good celebration with his friends.

  5. Amanda van Mulligen

    Again, a very familiar story. When my eldest turned two some family turned up uninvited (and in fact unwanted at the party because my son didn’t really know them) and it ruined the whole day. He turned his back on everyone and played in a corner. It’s hard when family expect certain things from a birthday celebration and we don’t meet that because we know what type of gathering my son actually wants and responds well too. He doesn’t want masses of people he barely knows – he would rather have a small group of loved ones around him to celebrate. As he’s got older he now has a kids party every year – but by his own admission that can get too rowdy for him too. We’re looking at doing it differently next year and taking him somewhere with a couple of friends instead of a full on party.

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      That’s what happened on out third birthday, the worst part being I had actually PLANNED for it to happen. Really, I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t, I suppose. I pregnant, I had powdered sugar in my hair, and I missed my husband terribly. Not a good combination. To be fair, I didn’t think EVERYONE would show up, but they all did. My parents live in a tiny little town (village would be a better words), and so everyone is family, and when something’s happening, the whole town will be there. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a very bad thing when you’re sensitive.

    2. Dalia

      Leila thank you so much for sharing your story.. my son just turned 4 a couple of weeks ago and I’m about to lose hope that this attitude will ever change .. Birthday parties as well as anywhere that gets too crowded or too noisy would just freak him out .. he starts pulling me out saying “lets go home” and throwing tantrums and I respect his wishes of course to avoid more embarrassment.. it’s quite depressing to b honest 😞

      1. Leila Boukarim Post author

        Oh Dalia, I feel your pain. There was a time when I swore I would never throw a party and would never take my son to a party. He’s 8 now and looks forward to them. His past few parties have been planned mostly by him, which he takes great pride in. He insists on choosing a specific theme and planning the party games. It’s like he’s a different person (in that respect).

        Not all people like parties. I still try and avoid them when I can. They’re not for everyone, just like everything in life. It’s just harder to accept that when our kids are little and we are in control of their lives, especially when their choices and preferences are not representative of most children.

        It will get better… Hang in there x

  6. Karen Morland

    I’m just pouring over your blog, my daughter is 4yos old and we’ve known for a while that she is a highly sensitive child, my husband too is a highly sensitive adult, but there is not much info/support out there in the world! My daughter does love birthday parties however she hates the cake movement with the clapping and the singing, especially at her own birthday parties, we still do the cake but we get round it by letting her take a step back and all her cousins blow the candles out etc! X

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      Karen, thank you so much for stopping by! When I read comments like yours, it makes it even harder for me to believe that not very long ago, I honestly thought we were the only ones going through this mysterious “thing”. “A child who hates parties” was something we did not expect, and we certainly had no clue how to deal with it (which is why we just stopped going to them!). It can be so hard having to deal with something that is new to you and seems to go against everything you know (like “kids love parties”). But once you understand where all this comes from, everything starts to make sense. I am really looking forward to the movie Sensitive by Elaine Aron. Having people know about this, especially the non-HSC’s, will hopefully make a big difference!

  7. Suzi

    I just found your website and need to be doing a lot of other things right now, but I just can’t quit reading. My (HSC) son (almost age 5) finally does ok at his own parties but hates going to others. We just spent an awful evening at a beloved cousin’s party where my husband and I took turns “hiding out” in a bedroom with our son until he adjusted to being there. He played upstairs by himself while all the kids were downstairs playing party games. He waited until the kitchen was clear to eat a birthday snack. All the parents sort of half smiled and scratched their head in our direction while our son avoided everything dealing with the party. Finally, about an hour and half into the party, he felt comfortable enough to join his friends (and of course by then the party was almost over). I am also a HSP (but never really knew how to label it). Even without having read too much of your blog, I just had to say thank you so much for sharing. I will be back often. This will be a much needed resource.

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      Suzi, it means so much to me that you found our stories helpful (or relatable at least)! It’s amazing how they warm up and start having fun right before the end. And the “taking turns” bit was something we did so much. Your story reminded me of my sister’s wedding two summers ago which was an absolute nightmare, and it all started because we’d forgotten his sippy cup and he completely refused to drink out of a cup or straw like most children would. There was crying and screaming and tantrums and looks from confused parents and even more confused childless people. It was embarrassing and exhausting dealing with all of that on this big day.

      If someone then had told me that one day my son would be the kind of kid who not only enjoyed but looked forward to parties, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second. I never thought a person could transform so drastically in the span of a few years. So it seems that things do get easier eventually. Each child at his or her own pace will learn to deal with the world. I really do believe that these children are equipped with the awareness to work on themselves. I have watched my child (and others like him) set little goals for himself and work really hard (mostly when he thinks no one is watching) to try and achieve them. I honestly still can’t believe how far he’s come and I couldn’t be more proud. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

      Thank you so much Suzi for reading and sharing your story. I look forward to reading your comments again!

      1. Suzi

        Thank you for responding! Tonight I really needed it, and it felt like a big hug coming through the computer screen. I agree about progress…my son has made astounding improvements in so many ways since he was just a baby and would not go to another person for more than about 10 seconds, but we’ve had some rough days lately, and I needed to be reminded that it will get better. Many, many thanks.

        1. Leila Boukarim Post author

          Oh Suzi… Don’t thank me please! Those days are really, really rough, which is why I find it so important to have a network (albeit virtual) of like minded people to remind us we’re not alone.

          You are not alone. I totally get it. *BIG BIG VIRTUAL HUG*

  8. Shikha

    Hi Leila- you have no idea how I am feeling right now after reading your story. It seems like our boys are identical. My soon to be 6 year old is going through the same. He is a hypersensitive child and we had started to notice that he doesn’t like birthday parties after his 3rd birthday. Till now we have only celebrated his 1st and 4th birthday with friends and family. The rest 3 birthdays we preferred to take him out on a holiday. But to be honest he hates even a mention of a birthday party and escapes from any celebration. Just like you mentioned singing , clapping , blowing candles on the cake freaks him out completely. Many says he will sooon grow out of it and how I am waiting to see that day when my darling son will be looking forward to go to parties just like other children. It was indeed very difficult to explain to other parents why he misses all the birthday parties but now most of the parents knows that he is anti birthday party. I still don’t know how to deal with this. I do not put any pressure on him. I only mention once to him and if he says he doesn’t want to go I let him be. I am only concerned as this should not have any attitude problems in the future and he should not become anti social.

    1. Leila Boukarim Post author

      Hi Shikha, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you could relate to this and that you know you’re not alone. You know, for a very long time, I though things would never change, that they would always be unnecessarily challenging. And I’m happy to say that I’ve been proven wrong every time. When my HSC was little and we were desperate and worried, a lovely lady (to this day I have no idea who she was) told us that her son was like our when he was little, and that he grew up to be one of the most sociable boys she’d met. Sure enough, the same thing happened with us.

      I know some older children (even many adults) who don’t love parties, and that’s not a bad thing. I know parents who will have very intimate birthday celebrations for their kids because that’s what they want. Cake and singing and clapping don’t have to be a part of this. I admire you for letting him be. I know that it can be very worrying when most children seem to be okay with something and ours aren’t. But I’ve come to learn that as long as our kids are healthy and happy, and are growing and learning, then their likes and dislikes don’t really mean much anymore.

      I hope you can find some comfort here, and in the online communities (you can find links in my resources page). And please come to me for anything; I will try and help any way I can…



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