When Your Child Says, "Nobody Likes Me"

Stay objective and avoid overreacting.

Posted Nov 23, 2019

Four-year-old Sam arrived home from preschool one day complaining, “ No one likes me!” Needless to say, his mom and dad were horrified. Memories of their own childhood wounds from rejection flooded their minds, and they worried that Sam was having the same problems.

This situation presented his mom and dad with one of the greatest challenges there is to being a parent: to separate emotionally from your child’s experience. Even though the child’s issue feels the same as their own childhood problem, it isn't. Their son is a separate individual with his own coping skills, facing a unique set of circumstances. To handle their child’s problem, it was crucial for these parents to stay objective, avoid overreacting (the problem may not have been as serious as it seemed), and obtain more information. Sam’s parents followed this path.

After taking some deep breaths, they asked Sam if he had had a fight with anyone at school that day. They also questioned him about whether he had any friends in his class. Sam's consistent answer was that no one plays with him, and no one likes him at school.

Sam's parents approached his teacher to see if this was really the case. The teacher laughed and said it wasn't true, and in fact, the children liked Sam very much. After a few moments of attempting to identify where Sam's feeling was coming from, Sam's teacher realized what the problem might be.

Sam's best friend, Jonny, was becoming very friendly with another boy, Kevin, and Sam was probably feeling left out. Every morning, Sam and Jonny used to build cities in the block corner together, but now Jonny and Kevin played there and didn’t want Sam to join in.

Sharing his best friend was difficult for this small child. Jonny actually was Sam's first real love outside of his family, and the pain he was feeling was similar to that of a “jilted lover.” It's hard for grown-ups to cope with rejection, so imagine how difficult it was for this little boy!

Since Sam had had very little experience with the complexities of social relationships, he didn’t know how to interpret what was happening, nor did he have a clue about how to handle his emotions. Sam needed the grown-ups' help. Here are some steps these parents needed to take.

Sam's parents could help him by clarifying the situation for him. They could explain to him that there has been a change in his relationship with Jonny. First, Sam and Johnny had fun playing together in the block corner all alone. Now Johnny likes to spend time with Kevin, too.

This kind of situation happens all the time. People have big hearts and can like more than one friend. It doesn’t mean that Jonny doesn’t like Sam anymore, or that Sam did anything wrong.

They needed to talk with Sam about his feelings. They might tell him, “It’s natural for kids to find it hard to share their best friend. When this happens, kids can feel angry and sad. If you ever feel  this way, you can tell us, and we will help you.” Sharing stories about their own experiences with social triangles and relating that they had a hard time too would also calm Sam down. He is not alone.

Teaching Sam some positive coping skills would empower him. The parents might suggest, for instance, that when Jonny is playing with Kevin, and they won’t include him, he can express his feelings to his friend. He can tell Jonny, “We are friends, and it’s not nice to leave me out. It makes me feel angry and sad.”

The teacher can monitor the children’s interactions and discourage any exclusionary behavior, as well. In the final analysis, if Jonny still doesn’t want to include Sam, his parents can suggest that he find other kids with whom to play. His parents can explain, "Sometimes friends need time to play with other children."  

The parents should find ways to support Sam's relationship with Jonny. For instance, Mom and Dad can suggest that Sam invite Jonny for playdates, or they can bring Jonny along on special family outings. In this way, Sam can have the alone time and closeness he is looking for with his friend.

It would also be helpful for the parents to arrange for playdates with other children (whom the teacher might recommend) to help him build other relationships. Ultimately, Sam needs to learn that even if Jonny doesn’t play with him anymore, he will find another playmate and will be fine.