What do I tell a child who says she has no friends?

Q: My 7 year old came to me this evening and said she had something "private" to tell me, then proceeded into sobbing that no one liked her anymore at school and she had no friends anymore. She said kids (mostly boys) were saying things to get her in trouble, and girls that she normally speaks highly of won't let her play or sit with them at lunch anymore. Then she told me that she feels no one loves her except for myself and Grandma!

A: It is not unusual for 7-year-old girls to suddenly think that the sky is falling. The first thing to do is to determine whether or not it really is. Is this the first time she's come to you with these sorts of complaints? Has she seemed down or easily upset recently, or has she been mostly happy? If this was an isolated meltdown, it was probably just a bad day. The social scene in 2nd grade changes by the hour. If you see a pattern that concerns you - or if just want to be sure - check with her teacher. Ask the teacher about the incidents she described to you and how she is interacting with the students in the class in general. Has she really been getting in trouble? As a psychologist in an elementary school, I cannot tell you how many calls we receive with fantastic stories about playground insults and severe punishments that turn out to be exaggerations at best. Girls, in particular, can be quite dramatic! When kids are upset, they often distort stories in their own heads.

Once you have a better idea of what REALLY happened, you may still need to respond. Your goal should not necessarily be to make your daughter feel better. Children need to learn to face difficult situations and the unpleasant emotions that go with them. If you are focused on just helping her to feel better - because you are probably feeling pretty upset yourself - you may inadvertently give the impression that it's not OK to be sad. The more important goal is to learn to manage the situation and the emotion that comes with it. So, first be empathic - listen and tell her that you understand why she feels sad, hurt, or frustrated. Then, after a few minutes of that, ask her what she thinks she can do about it. Explore options with her rather than telling her how to solve it. Should she avoid certain kids? Stand up to them? Stick with her friends? Talk to a teacher? Then, encourage her to carry out the plan and ask her the next day how it went. Make changes to the plan, if necessary. If you are concerned that the conflicts go beyond what your child can handle independently, such as bullying, contact the school and ask them to intervene.

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