Why does my child want me with him at birthday parties?

When a birthday invitation arrives in the mail, children are excited. They ask, “Can I go? When is it?” and talk eagerly about presents, cake, and goodie bags. But when the first excitement is over, a child may ask his parents another question: “Will you stay with me at the party?”

For some children, attending a party is difficult. Between the ages of two and three and one-half, a child may only want to go to a birthday party if his parents come along, and he may cling and ask them not to leave once he’s arrived. This can happen even when the birthday child is a close friend and the birthday home is familiar.

Children who are shy are likely to have a harder time separating than children who are outgoing and self confident. A child who’s quiet in groups may prefer to observe at parties rather than to participate and may only feel comfortable doing this when his parents are with him. He also may want them around because he feels temporarily overwhelmed by the excitement, the number of people at the party, the sight of strange children, or the unusual appearance of a friend’s house decorated for a birthday. If the party is in a restaurant or other unfamiliar place, he may feel even more unsure.

Some children feel insecure at parties because their friends’ fathers are there. Many two- and three-year-olds aren’t comfortable with other children’s fathers. In some cases, children have not been around men as much as around women, and they may find fathers a bit scary because of their deep voices, big size, or beards. Occasionally, a child becomes afraid of a father because of the man’s profession. “He’s a policeman and can put you in jail”, one four-year-old told his three-year-old brother.

Whatever the reason for a child’s reluctance to attend a party alone, his parents may experience frustration because of the situation. They may wonder why he needs to be with them when other children the same age seem willing to stay at parties by themselves. And parents may worry about his ability to interact with other children, or his lack of independence.

In addition, parents can become angry, especially if they have other plans for the hours of the party, or if they don’t generally like to stay and participate at birthday parties. A parent may tell a child, “If you don’t stay at the party by yourself you’ll have to come home right now!” Such a message can leave the child feeling unaccepted, angry, and “bad” over something that he’s already having difficulty working through. And an angry parental outburst can make the parent feel bad later.

If parents can recall their own childhood experiences at parties, they may feel more tolerant and accepting about their child’s anxieties. Most of us have mixed memories. We may have been happy about the cake and ice cream and games, but we also remember some disappointments and feelings of shyness and embarrassment.

If your child is anxious about attending a party, you can look for ways to make him feel more comfortable. For example, see if a close friend or neighbor is invited to the same party so the two children can go together. Being with a friend may ease the pressure your child feels and make separating from you easier.

If you take him to the party and he wants you to remain, try staying for a few minutes to see if he begins to feel at ease. The parent giving the party can help by getting your child involved with another guest or with a toy or game. And sometimes just showing your child the cake and goodie bags will be enough to make him feel comfortable. If he decides he can stay alone, let him know that you’re leaving and tell him you’ll be back when the party’s over.

If, however, he wants to have you stay with him for the entire party, you may need to make spontaneous plans to do so. Tell the host that your child will feel more comfortable with you there. Most parents will understand, especially if you offer to help out. And keep in mind that although this situation may seem difficult, your child will become more independent with time. By the age of four or five, he’ll probably go more confidently to parties without you and enjoy participating and playing on his own.

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