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.
Click here to grab the printable!
More on Sensory Strategies for Kids
How to Cut Your Kid’s Nails Without Any Tears, Tantrums, or Freak Outs!
Here’s a Method to Help Kids That Hate Hair Washing
What Parents Need to Know About Sensory Dysregulation
The Best Solutions for Clothing Sensitivity in 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.
My 4.5 year old son has PTSD, ADHD (I am not convinced) and social /emotional
His anxiety quickly turns to anger and very intense fits of rage. He breaks out in hives sometimes with this. He “self sabotages” often. Today he had 2 parties he was invited too and woke up so happy to go. All morning so excited. Soon as it was time to get ready to go he threw a fit about getting ready and said he wasn’t going.
I talked to him calmly and tried to explain that if we didn’t get ready soon we would miss it. He insisted on not going. I did push him to get ready because I feared he would have been sad to miss it. After a while he said fine I’ll get ready to go but he was still very much angry. I explained it was too late now it was almost over and he was sad but more angry. This went on for quite some time. He was of course very sad later on.
What do I do going forward ??
Just give up on parties ? Force him , bring him there ??
We did make it to one party I “forced” and he did pretty well there despite his typical awkward moments but his behavior was worse when getting home , another one he was comfortable going to because it was his cousin but while there he threw a fit and we had to leave.
I just don’t know how to go with it. I don’t want to reward his behaviors either.
Hi Kerrianne! Thanks for reaching out! Some things to try could be: a visual schedule that he can look at to see how the day will go, having a routine that he can follow in preparation for the party, laying out clothing options the day before the party so that he can mentally prepare for wearing one of them, teaching him calming techniques/strategies he can practice whenever he starts feeling overwhelmed, doing sensory activities beforehand, turning the steps into a game (using fun language, racing to put shoes on, etc). Hope some of these can help! For even more help with sensory, check out our free sensory workshop.
The advice you received is good advice, but I’d like to give you a look into the adult version if your son’s “fits”. Don’t count down the time. Only if he asks. He has a hard time regulating time because after trauma, time is very warped in our minds, let alone a child whose concept of time is developing.
No matter the excitement, getting ready presents a lot of “comfort options/issues”. What will the weather be? Will I get claustrophobic? I can only wear these types of pants with these types of tops, so are any clean? To ask and/or find that answer takes much too long to explain and they wouldn’t understand anyway, so ensue spiraling and shut down.
What if “this” do I need “that”? Any comfort measures. You may pack more than normal — and getting out of the house is a pain as it is, I know, but for them it’s better to be prepared for anything that can trigger a meltdown.
If there’s healing after trauma, this will dissipate. But until then, these are all familiar symptoms to my and other’s situations. The scenarios and people can be unique and different. But the SYMPTOMS are all similar. And that’s how we relate. We help out words to and discover our symptoms and feelings. And right now he can’t describe all that’s going on in his head. Just need things to slow down and stop. If you’re late, you’re late. Don’t worry about it. Just focus on getting out. And yes, all the pre work mentioned in the other advice is important to help prepare for an event with fixed time. If you can, don’t even let them see a clock.
Remove guilt or shame words. Even simple words used in a particular way can feel like blame language. “If you, then we” or “you’re going to make this happen” are just more pressure scenarios that will only cause him to spiral more. Try and identify the top priority need. “What’s first?/the first step?” “What can I help with?” “What’s the hardest thing right now?”
It’s less about “reinforcing his behavior” and more about treating a symptom. He’s not acting out or just throwing a fit. His body in an instant was trained to treat these events as major threats. His panics and anger are all trauma responses. And though the moment is passed, every time something makes his body uncomfortable, his body is going to react as if he’s either being attacked or is not in a safe space. He could be angry about that or he could be angry for literally no reason; it’s all part of the process. But helping him know that it’s not shameful to feel this way that with practice his body will understand in time that it can be calm in situations where he’s uncomfortable. The more we think about this as “bad behavior” the more shame he will internalize and that WILL cause anger and that WILL create new acting out methods to cope with what he can’t change. But he can, and with therapy and time, he’ll understand that these moments, though they are many now, will pass every time and eventually become less and less.
Temperature regulation, emotion regulation, personal and physical control, all of this is hindered after trauma. Any internal guilt and shame needs to be the last thing he worries about, and how to get himself ok is the top priority, no matter what. And if that means that something gets missed or the event doesn’t happen, then you really have to emphasize how ok this is. Even beforehand (not right before hand but maybe the day before in any of your preparatory work/discussions) talk about a backup plan. “What do we do to fix the day, or make it just ok?”
It got to a point where relearning time management, days got broken up into multiple parts of three segment. Morning and evening was 2 parts, and afternoon was depending on what went on. Then it was just “the morning. The afternoon. The evening.” And a ritual or an anchor had to happen to help me accept the day and consider that portion of the day “ok”. So morning ritual offer or sweet drink with matching pajamas to my mug. Or a particular show. Maybe a movie in the background for the day (doesn’t matter how much it’s repeated, shows we know are better than new shows because we know what to expect; no surprise which creates structure to a day). Structure becomes very important. There will be little to no coping with change of plans in the beginning. Structure and routine becomes the anchor. And continuing the thought from before, that’s how there was a separation from day to night because night was for different types of things/activities.
This eventually blended together and soon I just needed one goal to happen in order for it to be a good day that tended to be self care, like brushing teeth or taking a shower. Anything you were able to accomplish that was taking care of yourself was worth celebrating because it’s hard to do. In these instances, the important things are worth doing poorly. It’s important to brush your teeth. But even doing a quick brush that isn’t fully thorough is better than not doing it at all.
Help him figure out what exactly his struggles are, and help him accept that it’s not easy to control but it’s manageable. Just gotta take the day one step at a time. It does get better.
Hi my name is poly my 2 years old boy who received speech and occupation therapy. He is fine with his therapist but when ever I take him to my mom house or any family gathering he won’t walk at all and want me to carry him st all times and he crys alot when anyone talk to him or he hits his head too. I am so helpless sometimes. Do you have any idea how can you my 2 years old son to be socialize and stop crying when’s he sees anyone.
Hi Poly! Thanks for reaching out! He may benefit from some calming techniques and strategies that he can learn and do herself whenever he finds himself feeling overwhelmed! Check out our blog post here for some tips. In addition, talk with your pediatrician and check out our free sensory workshop that can help with identifying the root cause of these issues— save your seat here!
My Lo is 5 years old and just started kindergarten. She loves to go to school and doing good in class and with other kid. but during the recess time or play time she overwhelmed with so many kids around. She tend to Join larger group but can’t get success and end up being standing alone. How can I help her? She also cried when I leave her to school. How can I help her?
Hi Meg! Thanks for reaching out! She may benefit from some calming techniques and strategies that she can learn and do herself whenever she finds herself overwhelmed at school! Check out our blog post here for some tips.
My 8 yr old son used to always get overwhelmed with parties or larger gatherings but as you said in your article, we started being the first ones there and also telling him all about what to expect.
Towards the end of the school year he became very overwhelmed with the extreme noise & craziness in his elementary cafeteria- especially with some of the kids doing yucky things to their food and all the different smells.
For the first part of the year they sat with lots of space between & in-front of each other because of Cv19 but towards the end his class was placed in the middle of the cafeteria and all kids piled up – total chaos resulting in my son not wanting to eat in the cafeteria and also didn’t like going into the cafeteria to watch the annual Talent Show since the volume was so loud- we’ve talked about it ALOT – I have to find a solution since school starts in two weeks:\ Help!!!
Hi Tanja! Thanks for reaching out! Since he is sensitive to noise, try talking with him about it and coming up with a plan together— something he can do while at school if he gets uncomfortable. Things like: covering his ears with his hands, using noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs, or belly breathing! For more in-depth help with sensory issues, we also have a free sensory workshop— save your seat here!
Thanks so much for the article, it sounds a lot like what my 3 year old daughter is going through…
She just started school and is having a really tough time at recess. She says she has to go out and she doesnt want to because there are too many people and it’s scary.. She cries in the morning because she doesnt want to go to school because of that. Do you have any advice about how i can help her get through that and enjoy school? I feel so helpless watching her struggle and not knowing how to help her.
Hi Maya! Thanks for reaching out! So sorry to hear that your daughter is having a tough time with school and crowds. Try calmly talking to her about her fears. Sometimes that helps them to better understand their emotions. Since the mornings before school are difficult, maybe trying some morning sensory routines will help to prepare her and get her started on the right foot! We have a list of suggestions here! Let us know if that helps.
I am an infant development specialist who works with children birth to three years old with special needs. I was wondering if there is an option to print your articles to share with families without all of the ads? Thank you!
Thanks for wanting to share with families! You can provide the links for them to look at the articles you want to focus on, as there isn’t an option to print without ads!