Birthday parties can be stressful — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,Birthday girl

My daughter has always been a pleasant child, she has lots of friends and their parents and her preschool teachers always have had nice things to say about her. In the last couple of weeks, however, she has gotten surly and argumentative. I’ve seen more tears than when she was 3 years old. The least little frustration, and she’s a puddle.

This weekend we are planning to host her 5th birthday party at our house with a mix of her friends and adult friends and relatives. I’ve threatened to cancel the party, however, if she doesn’t get her act together. I have enough to worry about with cleaning, cooking, and planning the party activities as well as the everyday business of taking care of her and her little brother. It’s so hard to do all this extra stuff with an uncooperative and sometimes downright ornery child.

Ready to Cancel

Don’t miss last week’s column Helping kids deal with anxiety issues — Good Parenting

Dear RtC,

Please don’t cancel the party. She is acting normally given the circumstances. An impending birthday is a big deal to a soon-to-be 5-year-old who uses all the fingers of one hand to show everyone she meets how big she is.

A birthday party is a big deal

Having all her friends come to her house at once, dressed up for a special occasion with party food and party activities planned, is another boost to the excitement surrounding this milestone. With relatives coming as well, there is even more pressure to being the center of attention. Mixing in some folks that aren’t part of either of these crowds probably further boggles her mind. Such out-of-the-ordinary goings on can easily turn an easy-going child into a miserable (and misbehaving) being.

A birthday is a deadline

A child also puts extra stress on herself knowing that she is going to be “older” when the day comes. This can happen with any birthday after the age of 3. You’ll hear a child say, “When I’m 4, I won’t suck my thumb anymore.” “When I’m 5, I won’t be scared of monsters under my bed.” “When I’m 6, I will be able to ride my bike without training wheels.” As adults we may continue to put birthday deadlines on ourselves for dropping bad habits and acquiring good ones. The closer the day comes, the more we realize the extent of the challenge (and possible failure) we have set ourselves up for.

A party is a job

Children often pick up on their parents’ tension when company is coming and preparations have to be made. Misbehavior is often the result of inattention to children’s needs and inconsistencies in expectations. Rhythms of the household are different. Extra chores mean less time for bedtime stories. Freshly cleaned rooms mean restrictions on where and how children can play in the house, and often parents are less attentive to children while immersed in all the planning that goes into insuring a great time is had by all the guests. There may also be changes in how rooms are arranged to accommodate the upcoming birthday activities, for example, a large doll house or Lego table may be put in the garage and the backyard picnic table brought inside to make room for entertaining lots of children in the family room.

The guest of honor is actually one of the hosts

The role of birthday girl or boy is yet another stressor. It’s more than a play date, more than her parents having friends with children come over, and more than aunts and uncles and grandparents spending time at her house. She must interact with each of these groups, and all of them together, to make it all work.

Turning 5, she can be expected to be gracious carrying out some of the hostly duties. Review what these will be if you haven’t already done so. It is likely she helped with the invitation list and helped pick a party theme. Knowing her friends better than you, she may have an informed opinion on the best choices for food and activities. When guests arrive, she can greet each one and direct them to the party area, or you can divide this job among family members so that someone is making sure the guests are enjoying the planned activities.

Give her discreet tips as needed, such as coaching her just before present-opening to find something nice to say about each gift, and thanking each guest for coming as they leave.

Be sure to congratulate her when it’s over for a successful accomplishment. Now both of you can relax.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]