Receiving an invitation to a birthday party is delightful for any child. Receiving an invitation to a birthday party can also be fraught with anxiety for a child with DCD and their parents. Why?
Recently, I was fortunate to meet Moray McLean, Occupational Therapist with the BC Centre for Ability. We had a wide-ranging discussion about her work supporting children in the West Vancouver School District, as well as her personal interest and Master’s study in DCD. During this conversation we discussed the complex challenges around birthday parties for children with DCD and Moray generously shared her own study and insights.
Birthday parties can have an important contribution to a child’s social and emotional development, and the receipt of an invitation can be an indicator of social acceptance and inclusion of the child by their peer group. So why would the receipt of a birthday party invitation be anything other than positive for a child with DCD?
DCD impacts a child’s ability to learn, plan and co-ordinate motor skills. By extension, DCD impacts the child’s ability to take part in physical games, sport and social activities, which in turn affects their opportunities to socialize with peers and develop confidence in group settings, such as birthday parties.
The increasing sophistication of modern children’s birthday parties adds a layer of complexity for a child with DCD. Gone are the days of pass-the-parcel and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The modern child’s birthday party tends increasingly toward organized adventurous activities such as rock climbing, swimming, bowling or mountain biking. Such birthday party activities are often unique to the event and outside the child’s regular activities of daily life or play.
How does a child with DCD navigate having to tackle a complex motor activity alongside their peers, when tying their shoes and zipping their coat is a daily struggle?
Occupational Therapist Sally Payne, Ph.D. interviewed by Gia Miller for her article on Parents.com, explains that for a child with DCD there are three distinct elements at play when learning a new motor skill: the person, the activity and the environment. For example, a motor skill learnt at home will still be a struggle when the child is asked to demonstrate it at school, because they must recruit another part of their brain to perform the skill in a new setting. They may master it more quickly than when first learning the new skill but will still need practice in the new environment.
For a birthday party, this is not always possible. A rock wall or a bowling alley may not be easily accessible for advance practice, and children with DCD may find themselves overwhelmed by both new skills and a new environment.
As the parent of a child with DCD, I have felt that sinking feeling in my stomach when such an invitation has arrived. A swimming party, at a wave pool. This is the thought process that inevitably follows:
Can he swim? Yes.
Would he be able to do so safely in a crowded pool with a large wave and strong current? Probably not.
Would he need to wear a life jacket? It would be preferable.
Would he be teased for wearing one (at his age)? It’s likely.
Should I stay and supervise? Probably.
Would this be embarrassing to him and cause further opportunities for peer exclusion and teasing, both at the event and at school in the days following? Highly likely.
How can I facilitate his participation in a positive way, without drawing undue and unnecessary attention to him? He wants to be just one of the kids, after all.
I see how excited he is by the invitation, how he enjoys feeling like he’s “one of the gang”, how he is delighting in sharing the anticipation of the event with his peers. Yet, still, I ask all the above questions, and especially the following:
Is the emotional impact of not being able to participate on the same level as his peers and the subsequent potential teasing going to be more damaging to his self-esteem, than the receipt of the invitation was uplifting?
We navigate each invitation on a case-by-case basis. Often my anxieties have been proven unfounded. Sometimes a prior conversation with the host is necessary to discuss needed accommodations, their continued willingness to include my child with such accommodations, and facilitation of acceptance within the peer group of these. Often parents and kids are more understanding and kinder than we realize.
In addition to the above strategy of a prior open and honest dialogue with the host, I have found that positive birthday party participation can also be achieved by empowering my child to be his own best advocate: to speak up if something is not working for him, if something feels uncomfortable or unsafe, or if he needs to approach an activity differently.
One of the magnificent strengths children with DCD show is incredible self-awareness as to their abilities and limitations and a willingness to make the best of any situation. Moray shared an anecdote about a boy she knew who quite happily acknowledged that the bike riding at a birthday party would be beyond him but was still delighted to arrive later and join the group for treats and cake. He still felt included in the party and happily joined the celebration with his peers, on his own terms.
As this boy’s story has so wonderfully shown, positive birthday party participation is more than possible for children with DCD. After all, isn’t it always less about the activity and more about wishing your friend happy birthday wishes? And cake!
With thanks for Moray McLean for her generous support and sharing her knowledge and insights.
Miller, G., 2020, “Why Haven’t We Heard of Dyspraxia?”, Parents, 20 November.
Available at: https://www.parents.com/kids/development/learning-disabilities/why-havent-we-heard-of-dyspraxia/ (Accessed: 01 February 2021)