Spencer Jones, 9, was excited to go to his best friend's laser-tag birthday party last year—until he walked into the dark room with the flashing neon lights. "The host texted me that Spencer was feeling anxious," says his mom, Hollis, from Chicago. "She took him out of the room and bought him tokens so he could play in the nearby arcade until the other kids were finished." So long, sweet parties and park playdates. As kids grow bigger and approach the tween years, their activities get more adventurous. Some may be higher-intensity versions of familiar fun (like glow-in-the-dark bouncy castles) while others require a skill (think soccer party or karate) or a certain height requirement (such as amusement-park thrill rides). "Not all kids are ready at the same age to make the leap from bumper cars to roller coasters or from a pool to a twisty waterslide," says Caron Farrell, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Seton Healthcare Family in Austin, Texas. "And it can create anxiety for your child as the invitations come in." What should you do if your kid feels nervous about going or gets butterflies once he's there? Experts help you make the call in some common scenarios.
Whether it's roller-skating or rock climbing, your child may naturally feel apprehensive doing something she's never tried before. "My 9-year-old daughter, Brynn, turns down
75 percent of the parties she's invited to," says Kristen O'Day, of Baton Rouge. "In her imagination, the other kids are going to be skating like professionals while she'sclinging to a wall." Help allay fears by visiting the venue or looking it up online together to get a sense of what it's like before you commit, suggests Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., author of The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don't Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood. If your child has never done the activity, clue in the host so she can be alert to any issues that may come up. Your kid might also find it comforting if you tell her that she doesn't have to jump right in—that it's fine to watch for a little while. Attending with an invited friend who doesn't have a lot of experience with the activity can also provide moral support. "Brynn ended up having a good time at an ice-skating party this year because her best friend came too," says O'Day.
Some pre-tween adventures, like zip-lining, karaoke, and thrill rides, clash with common fears. In these cases, it's best not to push. Let your child know that being a little afraid is actually part of the fun. If he still won't bite, let him off the hook: "Although you want to encourage your child to try new things, it's important to validate his feelings," says Kate Thomsen, author of Parenting Preteens With a Purpose. "You can eventually help him overcome his fears, but trying to do it in front of a bunch of his friends isn't the right time." If a party's involved, explain the situation to the host's parents and ask whether your child can swing by for pizza and cake later, suggests Dr. Farrell. For one-on-one invitations, see whether the friend's parents are flexible about the activity, but don't be offended if they want to stick with the original plan and find another pal to come along. Be sure to offer a playdate soon for your kid's sake.
She's Tried It Before and Doesn't Like It
Before you weigh in, consider her reaction last time. If she's hesitant because it's not her thing—suppose she doesn't like tumbling at the gymnastics center—remind her that many kids probably came to her parties even though the theme would not have been their first choice. "You might suggest that she go to be social and the next time she can pick what she and her friend do together," says Dr. Sasson Edgette. But if she flat out refuses to participate, it's fine to decline. If she's torn—maybe she likes most of the amusement park, just not that stomach-churning pirate ship—you might tell the host that your kid will need to sit out that ride but she's up for everything else. "It will make your child more comfortable if you lay out the parameters ahead of time so she doesn't have to tell them," points out Dr. Sasson Edgette. Another solution: Accept and come along, explaining your predicament to the hosts. You can stay under the guise of helping out, and the other kids won't think anything of it, so your child won't be embarrassed.