One of the joys of living with social media running constantly in the background of your life is comparison. I say ‘joys’ through slightly gritted teeth as those perfectly Instagrammed shots and endless happy family Facebook updates can leave you feeling like your family life is less than perfect.
Especially if you live with an anxious child.
I have mentioned this a few times before. Many people don’t realise how crippling and life-changing proper full-blown anxiety can be. I was included in that group of people until it became part of our daily lives.
Now I understand.
Do I know how to help a child manage their anxiety? Not really. It has been a steep learning curve. Sometimes I get it right, other times I get it spectacularly wrong and one of those times is birthdays.
In the happy world of Instagram and Facebook, I see a sea of birthday posts filled with happy looking children, amazing parties, happy days.
That isn’t quite how my son’s birthday turns out. We do try.
You see a birthday brings with it many variables.
The expectation involved causes excitement and nervous energy which can cause lack of sleep and build up into a state of high anxiety. It contains unexpectedness. Presents, surprises, disappointment. Those wonderful presents that you lovingly choose can be a cause of meltdowns and stress. They don’t like surprises but the nature of a birthday is to expect surprises and so you can’t win. Surprise them and they don’t like it. Don’t surprise them and they are disappointed.
Finally, birthdays are a social time with parties and visitors, noise and disruption to routine. All of those things can be a recipe for disaster for an anxious child. For an anxious child, having everyone watching you open your presents can be really stressful, especially if you know that you can’t mask disappointment or feign happiness.
For my son, every birthday is the same. Yet every year we seem to get it wrong. He gets excited, he tells us what he wants. We know from experience that he changes his mind so we know not to buy anything until the week before. Surprises don’t really work but he always wants some. He never wants a party and then about three days before the big day, he decides he wants to do something with friends and it is a mad dash trying to organise something. Not helped by his birthday being in the summer holidays.
It is exhausting.
This year contained the usual mix of stress and anxiety. He needed a new phone, so this was a major investment and one present that he knew was coming. I picked up a few extra little things to wrap up and pre-ordered a new Xbox game he had been raving about the week before.
He was disappointed. The Xbox game was wrong. The phone was boring. He hated the presents and stormed off.
That was a fairly normal reaction.
To an outsider, he looks like a spoilt brat with no manners. We know that it is the anxiety, the build-up and that it will pass. We knew that he needed time and space. Thankfully it did but it is still upsetting when you have gone to so much effort. Within a day, he loved his phone and was thrilled about the Xbox game. He even liked the other presents that he had originally hated.
He needed some processing time. Maybe he needed to open his presents without everyone watching and waiting with bated breath. Maybe we need to take him shopping for his birthday presents so that there aren’t any surprises? Maybe we should just play the whole birthday thing down and not make so much of a fuss?
Maybe we just have to come to terms with the fact that this is just how it is and not take it all so personally?
As for me, well, we survived another birthday. Just about. The meltdown was minimal and he had a lovely evening playing indoor golf with a group of friends. Maybe next year we will do things differently but I doubt it?