Did your kid have a less-than-stellar Valentine’s Day? The exact phrase “hurt feelings” exists in many languages, according to psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts, because rejection activates the same centers as physical pain in the brain. It actually does hurt.
So what can parents say to kids who are dealing with the sting of rejection, from romantic disappointment, to slights from friends, to a party invitation they never got?
Winch says the crucial thing for parents to let elementary age kids know is that rejection always hurts–and that that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. Parents can also help kids focus on other peers who do love and accept them, asking question like, Who enjoys spending time with you? Who likes to have fun with you? They might also create more opportunities to spend more time with those friends.
Middle school kids, Winch says, are old enough to begin to respond to negative feelings of rejection with positive thoughts about themselves. “If they’ve been rejected socially, they can think about what they bring to the table socially,” Winch says. Parents can help replicate an exercise shown to alleviate the pain of rejection by asking kids, What do you think would make you a good friend? What do you think you have to offer in a friendship?
High school kids are more likely to be dealing with romantic heartache. And it’s important for parents to take that seriously, even when kids are young: Winch says the research shows it’s easy to underestimate how much rejection hurts another person. But parents can help kids recover from romantic rejection by asking questions like, What do you think would make you a good boyfriend or girlfriend? He encourages kids to make a long list, and then focus on one especially important quality, like being a good listener, or having a good sense of humor, and go deeper with questions like, What are some ways a sense of humor is valuable? What are some reasons that someone might love being around a good listener?
All of these are ways, he says, for parents to reinforce two powerful messages: to remind kids how much they bring to the table. And to encourage them that even if someone didn’t see that this time, someday, someone else will.