Some kids are overwhelmed and scared to attend parties or other crowded spaces. It might be more than shyness. Figure out what’s going on and how to help your child!
At first, you might have thought your child was shy when they cried or clung to you at a birthday party. But over time, it became evident that it was a lot more than shyness.
Some children get overwhelmed at parties or in large crowds.
For some of those kids, the overwhelm is so big that they have meltdowns or shut down, refusing to move or participate.
These are hard moments that can be filled with embarrassment and worry because you don’t know how to help your child. You want them to enjoy going to a friends birthday and playing with other children. You want to take a trip into a crowded Ikea on a Saturday morning without having to abandon your cart and leave empty handed.
Helping your child through this overwhelm is possible.
Signs Your Child Is Overwhelmed at Parties and Large Crowds
I want to be clear about what “overwhelm” can look like in our kids in large crowds or at birthday parties. Ultimately, these signs are clues for how to help them. Read through the list and see if there are any you hadn’t realized were connected to their discomfort in crowds:
- Refuses to walk into a crowded room
- Hides behind, clings to, or claws at an adult in order to stay protected
- Complains of not feeling well before parties, outings, and other trips. Or, looks for excuses not to go
- Tantrums when they find out they are going to a party or somewhere with a crowd
- Shakes and/or cries in crowded environments
- Has a meltdown with screaming, hitting, and/or throwing objects in these settings
- Looks for and retreats to the quietest place at parties, stores, or in other locations with crowds. May go to a corner and turn their back to the crowd
- Rocking back and forth, covering ears, and/or covering eyes.
Why Some Kids Get Overwhelmed at Parties and With Large Crowds
Why do some kids have this type of reaction at parties or in large crowds? While there could be several different explanations, it likely has at least something to do with their sensory processing.
If that’s a new word to you, let me explain… Sensory processing is our brain taking in all the sensations from our environment and interpreting them. This is highly unique to each individual. Your brain may see a crowd of people, hear the noise they’re making, and interpret that all as okay. In fact, your brain might do such a good job that you don’t even notice those sensations.
Your child’s brain may interpret the noises as too loud, the temperature in the room as too hot or too cold, the slight bumps or touches from others in the crowd may be painful or make them feel like they’re going to fall over.
In a crowd, there are so many sensations that the brain can get overloaded. If that happens, you’ll see your child meltdown, try to run away, or totally shutdown.
Of course, other factors like anxiety can cause a fear of crowds. If it’s solely anxiety based though, you won’t see sensory overwhelm. At the same time, it’s common to see both anxiety and sensory processing playing a role because they’re closely linked together!
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How to Help Kids That Get Overwhelmed, Scared, or Freak Out In Crowds
What can you do to help you child? A lot.
Step 1: Ask Your Child
First and foremost, if your child is 3 or older and has good speech skills, ask them why they don’t want to go to the party, Ikea, or the parade. It sounds simple because it is, but as parents, we often overlook bending down and kindly asking our kids why something is bothering them.
The behavior of melting down, refusing, or crying is so overwhelming, we often immediately go into “fix-it” mode
When you ask your child about what’s bothering them, make sure you leave a lot of time for them to answer. Try to listen as much as possible and not put any words in their mouth. After you’ve listened, re-phrase back to them what they expressed, “Oh, so the noise is so loud it hurts your ears. I didn’t know that, but I’m glad I do now.”
If your child is too young to ask, put on your detective hat and start watching for clues. Do you notice any other environments that your child is upset by noise, lights, smells, or people bumping into them? Another clue is if your child doesn’t like to ride swings, climb, or rough house. That could indicate that they have gravitational insecurity.
Step 2: Identify Their Needs
Use these clues to make your best guess at why your child is specifically overwhelmed in crowds. It’s usually a combination of the following reasons:
- Too loud
- Too bright
- Strong smells
- Nervous about people bumping into them
- Nervous people will touch, hug, or kiss them
Step 3: Make a plan
If you were able to ask your child about why crowds of people were overwhelming, then, ask if they have any ideas for what might help them. It never ceases to amaze me the solutions that children will come up with. After all, they understand their needs better than anyone else.
If they can’t think of any solutions, then you want to suggest some of the strategies we’ll talk about below. Either way, you’ll want to let them know what the plan is. Remind them of the plan often because it will reinforce how they’ll be able to cope which will decrease their anxiety.
And, if your child is too young for this conversation, you’ll make a plan for how to help them based on what you think is bothering them. No matter how old your child is, you will want to experiment. You’ll want to try some of the strategies a few times and then re-visit them again if you need to.
Strategies for it being too loud:
- Covering their ears with their hands
- Wearing noise cancelling headphones
- Wearing Vibes ear plugs, which filter out background noise.
Strategies for the environment being too bright:
- Wear sun glasses
- Wear a hat with a brim
- Cover eyes as needed and when safely able to do so.
Strategies for strong smells in the environment:
- Practice mouth breathing
- Use an essential oil scent they enjoy and swipe across their wrists. Encourage them to smell their wrist when other smells are too strong.
Check out other strategies for smell sensitivities.
Strategies for being nervous about touch or being bumped into:
- Don’t force children to hug or hand shake. If you anticipate this hurting family members feelings, in advance, call and explain the situation
- Find a spot that’s a little out of the way, but still part of the party or event
- Use a squeeze ball or fidget toy that they can squeeze or play with when they feel overwhelmed.
Overall Strategies for Overwhelm at Parties
- Get to parties and events early before a lot of guests. Being one of the first to arrive gives your child a chance to get comfortable with the surroundings and slowly adjust as people enter the room instead of being bombarded all at one time.
- Use a weighted lap pad or compression vest during parties or in crowds to help keep your child calm. A bookbag with some books inside can also help your child feel more grounded.
- Let them know that you’re there to support them. Reiterate several times that they can let you know at any time how they’re feeling.
- Pack a small bag with some of the supportive tools you might need from above like headphones and sunglasses and keep it in the car. You can hand the bag to your child before entering a crowded space and ask them to pick anything out that they think might be helpful.
- Chewing gum or sucking on a lozenge can also help kids feel calm. You could pick out some special gum in advance that they’ll get a piece of right before they go to the party.
- Teach them how to belly breathe and practice it. Teach them to start using that type of breathing when they feel overwhelmed.
Consider these strategies and any other solutions that you and your child want to try out. Then make a simple plan. It might go something like this:
Next weekend you’re going to Sarah’s party. We’re going to arrive early so we’re one of the first kids there. Before you go, I’ll call Sarah’s mom to let her know that crowds feel overwhelming to you sometimes. She’ll know how to help you if you need it. You’re also going to chew a piece of the special watermelon gum and wear a hat to help block out the light. And, you’ll just watch any games they play that you don’t want to play.
Repeat this several times and encourage them to repeat the plan to you.
Step 5: Focus on baby steps
If you’re child outright refuses to go to parties, a first step might be to have 2 friends over to your house at the same time, then 3. Or, you may want to go to the party 30 minutes early and then leave as guests start to arrive.
Breaking the goal of tolerating crowds and parties into smaller steps will help build your child’s confidence and gives you a chance to reinforce how the strategies helped them and that they’re capable!
Grab the Sensory Activities Free Printable
When kids have sensory needs, they usually don’t affect just one area of their life, but many. Sensory activities can be a powerful way to help them focus and get their needs met. Get a free printable of 25 Powerful Sensory Activities to Calm and Focus Your Child right in your inbox.
More on Sensory Strategies for Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.