196. “Nobody Likes Me”

Many children think they’re unpopular. They think no one likes them. It can actually be a form of egocentrism. We’re used to thinking of egocentrism as something obnoxious – something that does wonders for the individual’s self-esteem, sometimes at the expense of others’. But it can backfire. It’s possible to egocentrically think you’re the only one nobody likes, and everyone else likes each other. That’s often what happens to children. I’ve heard and seen it, and I remember being there myself.
The problem is more common than most people think. Children who seem to be social butterflies are often secretly lonely. They see the signs of their own popularity – the number of people who invite them to parties, or try to sit with them at lunch – but they think they’ve pulled off a hoax – that people have been temporarily duped into thinking they’re likable. Or they think people are only pretending to like them. Whatever the scenario, they think, the truth will eventually surface, and seeming friends will disappear.
Your child may verbalize this problem, and you may have to let it stick around much longer than you’d like. You say, “Nonsense. Lots of people like you.” Then you start listing all the people who, in your opinion, like your child. You hope your child will think, “Oh yes. Lots of people do like me. I was mistaken. I’m pretty popular.” But that doesn’t happen.
What I’ve sometimes found effective is acknowledging the feeling of isolation: “I know how you feel. It can make you feel so sad when it seems as if you have no friends.” When you feel isolated, it can make you feel even more isolated when someone tells you you’re not alone. Of course, it depends on the person. Some children need to hear that they have friends. They want you to list their friends. It’s comforting.
After years of dealing with this myself (I almost wrote “coping,” but I didn’t always cope), I came to the point where I believed that people liked me. And it’s a self-fullfilling perception. It’s easier to like someone who feels liked. It’s no fair. The people who need friends the most are often the ones whose neediness keeps friends away.
We want to protect our children from pain, and most of us know the pain of loneliness. You may think I’m confusing children with adolescents – that children don’t know this kind of pain yet. But I’m convinced that they do. And even though we can make some things right for our children, sometimes all we can do is acknowledge the pain they feel. That doesn’t seem like much, but it does help.

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