My son has always had problems with crowds. Classrooms that were already noisy upon his arrival were intimidating; birthday parties where children were already being boisterous were impenetrable. We spent a lot of frustrated time waiting outside of these situations for him to get comfortable enough to edge in, but often he melted down. Purim carnivals, Halloween celebrations, and sometimes parades were all busts. We didn’t want him to miss out on exciting things and parties, so we had to figure out some ways to help him. Here are the three best ways we’ve found so far:
1. Get there early. The first thing we discovered was that he was better if a crowd built up around him. He’s a pretty noisy kid, too. So we aimed to get to birthday parties and school early so he could be a part of the building of the noise rather than needing to navigate it later.
2. Give him a task. We regularly throw an enormous open house Labor Day party. While being on his home turf is a big plus, and having the crowd build up around him would help, we wanted to take it one step further. So we gave him a job of signing people in. He was extremely diligent about it the first year, when he was 5, and offered to do it again the following year. Eventually, he stopped doing it after a few hours and went to play with friends. He no longer needed it.
3. Talk it through. His own personal growth and aging has helped. We have talked with him about situations and how it makes his body feel when he is anxious. We have taught him to take breaths and calm down. Sometimes it seems helpful for him to focus on one or two friends or on one activity like eating to help ground him.
At nearly 8 years old, he had a remarkable experience at my father’s birthday party recently. My father had decided to have two parties: one that was kid friendly and smaller at home, and one for adults the following day. Then he decided that he wanted those adults to also get to meet his three grandchildren and asked if the kids could come for the first half hour of the adult party.
We employed our strategies: We asked my parents to think up jobs for the kids, which they did. My son would check people in, my 5-year-old daughter would ask people to sign a guest book with birthday wishes, and my 4-year-old nephew was the greeter. We got there early, at my son’s request, so they could do their jobs.
There were throngs of people arriving, all of them approaching my children, per instruction. Neither of my children seemed overwhelmed; they collected names. They were polite. And when their babysitter arrived to take them out, they left without any problems. This was a feat that would have been impossible several years ago.
It’s not a perfect system and we will continue to work with him on it. Giving him control of a situation seems to help enormously. We’ve even been able to do a drop-off birthday party for him occasionally, which is a huge step for him. He’s more articulate about his comfort levels with certain situations and we try to respect his boundaries when they are reasonable.
More importantly, though, we try to point out to him how far he’s come and how much progress he’s made in the moments that really matter, and that makes him try harder next time.