Your child wants this party and it can be hard to know how to make a decision when what might be good for our child may not be good for us. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says that there is not a right or wrong choice as long as you are honest with your daughter and yourself.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
May 27, 2021
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An illustration of a birthday cake.
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Your dilemma brings up a classic parenting struggle of when a child's needs directly oppose adult needs. Of course, it is understandable that a 5-year-old would see the entire family at her party as "the more the merrier." Underlying this wish, however, is likely the common fantasy of children with separated parents and families for everyone to come together and get along, in the same house forever and always! However, in the reality of the adult world, your family members have adapted and become comfortable with staying away from each other. In my experience working with families, I know reasons for this can be complex and serious.

Although some experts may weigh the child's needs or adults' needs more heavily, I see this situation as an example of "no right answer." There are different ways to approach making this decision, so I encourage you to think through each choice. You know your child and family members best, so keep that in mind as you consider each scenario.

Option 1: Make the party happen

To set yourself up for the best outcome, this decision would require a fair amount of the "overthinking" you may wish to avoid. (In the mental health world, I do not promote overthinking, but this is just for one time!)

You would want to think about how to frame it for the adults, including possibly having conduct rules (e.g., "no discussing politics!" or nobody can talk about the big fight from 10 years ago that feeds grudges to this day). This would take time and deep thought from you about what parameters would help everyone behave best. Then you would have to communicate the code of conduct to everyone, and be sure they agree. Lots of steps within that process, which involves placing great trust in many people. Like I said, you know best if this is remotely possible.

In addition, you might also think about a way to have the party that reduces interactions, and keeps the focus on the birthday girl. Maybe you hire a princess superhero (if that's not a thing, it should be) to come read a story, which means everyone can sit quietly and let your daughter bask in the attention of high-powered royalty. Structure the time with a clear beginning and end; I learned nobody wins with a young child's birthday party that goes longer than 2 hours! You could even have a short 1-hour window with the whole family featuring a headliner to give it structure, and then plan a special mother-daughter activity at the end of the family hour to keep the celebration going without threat of drama.

Finally, as much as you want to protect your child from adult dysfunction, it's a good idea to give her some preparation. No need for grisly details, but explain that sometimes people in the same family do not get along and have a hard time being around each other. What they do have in common is that they all love her, but if she notices anyone getting grumpy, it's not because of her.

Option 2: Don't have the party

This segues to the next decision pathway: don't do it. Since you know your family best, you are aware of what may happen that would end up making your daughter's birthday a fiasco, which would likely be worse than explaining to her that you cannot have the family party she wants.

What concerns me most is your potential stress level around hosting this party, and the difficult emotions you might end up managing, which affects your capacity to be present and joyful during her party. Even though this is her birthday and not yours, she needs her mother to be connected with her for this special celebration. In my personal experience, throwing a child's birthday party is totally exhausting under the best of circumstances!

Your daughter is too young to understand this next consideration, but birthday parties are notoriously over-stimulating for children. Even if she gets what she thinks her heart desires, whether that's a new bike or her entire family being there, it doesn't mean it won't totally overwhelm her. And if the stimulation includes tense and possibly arguing adults, she will absorb this as children do, and could definitely end up with tears mixing with the frosting stains on her cheeks. Some children are more easily overstimulated than others, so think about your daughter's temperament and track record. By not giving her what she thinks she wants, you may end up giving her the party better for her. And you.

Ideally, deciding not to have the whole family party involves an open and honest discussion with her, even at her young age. You could just say "no it's not going to work," but chances are this will not satisfy her desires, and she will either continue to insist, or show in other ways she is unhappy (like more meltdowns). Instead, explain to her that grown-ups have problems with each other sometimes, and have learned that everyone is happier when they are not around each other. It might be similar to how you have explained why you and her father are not together.

The Bottom Line

Without a crystal ball to know exactly what each possible outcome would look like, I encourage you to make the best of whichever decision you make. Regardless of the direction you choose, remind yourself you are thinking of your daughter's best interest, even if she doesn't feel like it (about 90 percent of parenting). Your daughter's best interest can also include yours, so remember to think about it from both perspectives. Either way, she gets a birthday party, and you get the gift of celebrating her.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.