Date: February 1, 2012
Question: My 8-year-old daughter Eliana was devastated last year when valentine cards and gifts were flying around her classroom, and she only received one. She is already dreading the upcoming Valentine's Day, which may be a repetition of last year. Is there anything we can do to help?
Answer: We all take pleasure in the joys of Valentine's Day, but you remind us that some children experience this day painfully rather than pleasurably. Understanding the basis for your daughter's isolation on this day will provide the tools to help her.
Why children may not receive valentines
It's safe to assume the particular situation in which Eliana is not receiving valentines reflects a broader pattern. She may focus particularly on this day since it receives so much attention, but the reasons she does not receive valentine cards or gifts do not reside in Valentine's Day. What are some common reasons a child is shunned?
A child may be socially awkward, perhaps even slightly off-putting to friends. For example, a child may have trouble respecting others' space or say things other children find perplexing or even a bit odd. Children often pull back from a socially awkward child, not because they wish to hurt a child's feelings, but because something about the child makes them feel uncomfortable.
Some children are socially capable when they are in a comfortable situation, but may be shy and/or anxious and reluctant to readily engage in usual classroom social life. As a result, other children might not think about including them but are not actively shunning them.
When a child is unpleasant to others, either inadvertently or with awareness and intent, classmates just notice and care about how they themselves are being treated and likely do not understand that the unpleasant child may be suffering inside.
Bullying may be suspected when one or several children are harassing a child. Eliana is not receiving valentines from many children, so it is unlikely she is being bullied.
Listen and empathize
The first step is to hear Eliana out. Perhaps she will share her worries about how the day will go, her anticipated embarrassment or her gripes about her classmates. Simply acknowledging her feelings and pain will help her the most.
You may want to ease her pain by sharing that you had similar experiences (if that is the case) and that they did not last forever. Also consider pointing out that she is not the only child in the class who may be disappointed in her valentines, or remind her that she has many friends in the neighborhood. Offer these reassurances carefully and as a small part of your response because otherwise Eliana might feel as if you cannot tolerate or accept her painful feelings. Hugs and expressions of your wishes that things were different will be the most supportive ways to comfort her.
Address possible causes
Another way to help Eliana is more complex and emotionally difficult. If she is shy, socially awkward or acting in a negative or provocative way with her peers, she has some responsibility for her social situation. Each possible reason poses different challenges for her and you.
If your daughter is shy, we certainly do not want her to feel that there is anything wrong with being that way. There isn't. Yet the inescapable, no-fault reality is that her shyness affects how others respond to her. Gently, lovingly and gradually bringing this issue to her attention over time can provide her with the motivation and empowerment to reach out socially. Even if she cannot, or chooses not to make that great effort, she will better understand that others are not being mean, that she is not disliked or unlikeable, but that rather she is just not part of the social mix.
The situation is different for a child who aggravates friends. It's particularly important for that child to understand that she is provoking her isolation. Many children with this problem will reject this reality because they often have trouble accepting their role in producing such undesirable situations, and they often blame others.
Socially awkward children pose the greatest challenge for parents because they are often limited in their ability to change or even understand why they can't connect with others. Yet they also need to understand, over a long period of time and with careful discussion, that their abilities and social capacities are different than those of many children in the classroom. It is kinder to gradually introduce these children to their differences than to allow them to continue to suffer in confusion as the isolation and negativity from their peers continue over the years.
It is painful for loving parents to see their child being rejected. However, life is filled with experiences that don't go well, and childhood is the time to learn how to deal with pain and disappointment. With your help, Eliana will come through this stronger, more realistic and in a better position to face the coming years. n
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. To submit a question, please email email@example.com. This month's question may be a composite or illustration of a parent's concerns.