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What to Do When Your Child With a Disability Is Not Invited to a Birthday Party

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Last year, there were no party invitations for my daughter who has Down syndrome. She will be going into fifth grade, and I can only think of one party from her school friends she has been invited to throughout her elementary school years.

Many parents of kids with disabilities understand the pain of not having your child invited to a birthday party. The exclusion feels like powerful canons shooting at an already weak wall we put up as we try to protect our kids. The hits are hard and our walls crumble as we witness our children feeling hurt and excluded — not to mention the way our hearts break, too.

One thing is certain: we cannot force people to love our kids or invite them to their birthday parties.

It reminds me of a line in the VeggieTales “Snoodles” movie: “A love that’s demanded is no love at all.”

Before we talk about what we can do to help our kids when they are not invited, we asked other parents of kids with disabilities what their experiences have been when it comes to birthday parties. Their responses show this exclusion is not an isolated incident and unfortunately happens more than it should:

“For my son’s first ‘friend’ birthday party (age 9 and he was in a therapeutic school), we invited everyone. Age range from 7-18. Several parents came up to me (teary-eyed) and told me it was the first party their child had ever been invited to. It was amazing yet just heartbreaking. We were at a jump zone type of place, and every one of those kids had a blast and a smile on their face; even a child in a wheelchair participated.” — Melissa D.

“I always try to make it up with doing something fun with just us. It will never be easy to replace friends, but it’s a start and makes memories.” — Bonnie T.

“This may sound harsh, but if it’s a parent I know and they don’t include my son I cut all ties with them. If my child isn’t important enough to include, then the adults are not important enough for me to associate with.” — Myhand J.

“We have had two experiences with this lately. The first party, while my daughter was so excited to be invited, she left feeling sad and alone. She mostly [uses her] wheelchair and [is] oxygen dependent if not in her chair. The activities for the party included hide and seek in the woods, jumping on a trampoline, hula hoop and scooters. Needless to say, she ended up alone playing frisbee with the mom… not a friend anywhere around. The second party was amazing. The parents knew my daughter’s limitations and actually designed the party activities around her abilities. There were slime making, tie-dye shirts and a pinata! The girls didn’t do anything she couldn’t do until after she had left. It was an amazing experience… so thankful for friends who keep my daughter’s limitations in mind!” — Ally W.

“My daughter is 12 and I only took her to two birthday parties over the years. One she requested to go to, and the family actually wanted her there. The other one, the child asked me herself if [my daughter] was coming. I knew she would be accepted at both. We have family parties for her. It’s hard, you never know if they want them to come or if they had to invite them! I never let it be a big deal!” — Debbie S.

“Other than family parties, my 8-year-old son only gets invited to one or two friend birthday parties a year. And we wonder every year if he will be invited again. When he isn’t invited to a party, I think we hurt more than he does at this point in his life. (But that’s our own insecurities, projections and fears.) We admit that we aren’t sure that he realizes he isn’t invited to school friends’ parties. Honestly, we would never want a child to be forced to invite him if they don’t want to have him at their party. We have to respect that child’s feelings as well. That being said, we are immensely grateful to the kids and parents who do want to include our son. Some families are inherently more welcoming and open to differences and embrace our autistic son with all his strengths, fears, dislikes and passions.” — Jamesie M.

“I try to make alternate plans so that we cannot go because we are ‘too busy’ and then try to plan a fun activity like movie, sleepover with a friend or getting our nails done. We also have her in other activities that have their own thing going on. She is super involved in our local Special Olympics. This is such a tough situation.” — Patti K.

We cannot force people to include our kids and invite them to a birthday party, but what can we do?

Talk about it.

If your child is heartbroken over not being invited, be a safe place for them to talk about and process their feelings. Reassure them they are loved and wanted. If your child has a hard time sharing what they feel, find creative ways for them to do so. You can use pictures with feelings so they could identify theirs. You can write a story together. Ask them questions and let them know there are no wrong answers.

As a side note, while it is OK for you to share you also feel sad, this is not the time for you to process your feelings. Do so with a spouse or close friend, but your child should not feel responsible for your feelings. It could make it harder for them to deal with theirs. Also, do not speak negatively about the child who did not invite them.

Make alternative plans.

Just because your child did not get to participate in a birthday party, it does not mean they cannot have a fun time. Do something your child enjoys doing with you. Make memories your child will remember.

Focus on a small circle of friends.

My daughter has had one or two friends who do well at including her. These are the girls she talks about hanging out with during recess or lunch. This year she was in a new school. Towards the end of the year, she was consistently talking about her friend, A. We decided to focus on that relationship, and that meant me reaching out to A’s mom. I sent her a letter and my number so we could connect. The day I got a text from her, my daughter and I did the happy dance. Once I was connected to the mom, I was able to help my daughter grow her friendship.

I am someone who also needs friends, so when I reach out for a possible play date, I ask for the mom’s availability to also hang out. It makes it less intimidating for people who are not comfortable with disability when I am available and make it known.

Don’t be afraid to initiate.

When I focus on a small circle of friends for my child, I make sure to invite those kids — and their parents — first. A personal phone call letting them know how much it would mean for my daughter to have a playdate can go a long way.

If the parents get to know you and your child, they are more likely to include your child at the next play date or party. Reciprocity.

Find their team.

It goes without saying, but connecting your child with other kids with disabilities (especially kids with their same disability) is important. While school friendships are valuable, chances are the “typical” experiences of birthday parties and friendships will flow naturally from people within their own community.

As parents, we also find meaningful relationships with those who “get it.” Imagine how our kids feel when they get that feeling from their own peers.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments.

Getty image by Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: June 26, 2018
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