When you think back on the Valentine’s Days of your childhood, you probably remember the candy hearts and character cards – and hoping that special someone might “be yours.” These days, it’s a little more complicated for our kids, and Valentine’s Day can actually be a minefield of disappointment and hurt feelings, much like it can be for adults. Trying to figure out how to handle sticky situations on Valentine’s Day leaves many parents asking questions like:
Is leaving someone out on Valentine’s Day considered bullying?
What do I tell my child if they don’t want to give a card to one specific classmate?
How do I console my kid if they don’t get that special valentine or that party invite?
In HelloJoey’s “Redefining Bullying” kit, we look at sticky situations to determine what qualifies as bullying behavior and what does not. We also talk with experts to find out how parents can best handle social conflicts on Valentine’s Day and beyond.
Is excluding someone on Valentine’s Day considered bullying?
It’s natural to be protective of our kids, and if someone excludes or upsets them, our first instinct might be to cry “bullying.” However, as psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman explains, that isn’t always the case. “Often, people we just don't like are described as bullies, and they aren't necessarily bullies – nor are we necessarily victims. When somebody's feelings get hurt, it doesn't mean they were necessarily bullied.”
So what exactly is bullying? The Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education created a nationally-accepted definition of the term that includes four criteria. For behavior to qualify as bullying, it must be:
repeated over time
based on a power dynamic
done intentionally to cause harm
It’s easy to jump to conclusions and call any type of objectionable behavior bullying, but a Valentine’s Day slight doesn’t necessarily fit the bill. “It's never one incident that can describe bullying,” says Dr. Burtman. “It's repeated over time.”
Of course, sometimes a social conflict on Valentine’s Day is part of an ongoing, repeated pattern of exclusion or rejection – and that may indeed qualify as bullying. The first criterion of bullying is aggression, and as kids move through elementary school, aggressive behavior often morphs from physical – like hitting or kicking – to social or relational, like gossip, rumors, rejection or exclusion. A classic example is “mean girls,” but it’s also common among boys. Refusing to give one student a card or invite them to a party could be bullying if it’s part of a longer list of social exclusion or rejection.
What if my child doesn’t want to give another student a valentine?
Many schools have rules that require students to give valentine cards to all of their classmates, but if your child wants to skip one particular student, find out why. It’s possible they simply don’t get along, but your child also may not want to give a card to someone who’s been bullying them – or to whom they’ve been bullying – and this may be an opportunity to identify a problem your kid is having at school.
When you talk to your child, consciously make the effort to validate their feelings in the moment. If your child doesn’t like someone, explain that sometimes you don’t like others, too, and talk about how you handle it. If they’re worried their classmates will tease them for giving a card to their “crush,” share a time when you felt shy or vulnerable and explain that it’s normal. It’s our jobs help our children learn how to cope with these feelings instead of trying to fix them or bury them, and teaching our kids that their feelings are valid can give them the emotional vocabulary to express themselves in appropriate ways.
From that point, help your child look at the situation from an empathic standpoint. We’ve all seen someone be mean to another person, and we can talk to our kids about how that looks. Try role playing with your child or ask how they think their classmate will feel when they don’t get a valentine. You also can practice and develop empathy with your child by:
helping them label and understand their feelings.
sharing similar experiences from your own life that made you feel the same way.
suggesting ways to make others feel better.
Teaching empathy (or helping our kids see things from the perspectives of others) is one of the best ways to prevent them from becoming bullies – and to protect them from being bullied themselves.
What if my child gets excluded or rejected on Valentine’s Day?
While it’s hard to watch your child get upset because they didn’t get a valentine from someone special or weren’t invited to a party, remember that not all rejection counts as bullying. Hurt feelings are part of life, and this is a good opportunity to teach your child resiliency. “A difficult day, poor test score, an illness, or a loss in an athletic event are all opportunities for building resilience,” shares Dr. Burtman. “When anybody has a tough day at school or work, it's helpful to share it with our family and let them know what they can do to make it better.” Talking through challenges with our kids lets us teach them to process their emotions in healthy ways.
If an incident that happens on Valentine’s Day is part of a bigger pattern of bullying behavior, take a second before you react. Understanding why a child is acting out is instrumental to solving the problem, and many times, bullying behavior is a cry for help. As school social worker Emily Kaiser explains, “People don't do things just to do them; they lack the ability to verbally communicate something that they're feeling. It can be really hard to empathize with the perpetrator, but it's a core part of understanding why people have these behaviors.”
Responding with empathy may be the key to helping your child deal with being bullied. It lets them see that there’s nothing “wrong” with them that caused them to be bullied – and that they have to find ways to manage their own emotions so they don’t take them out on others the way their bully did. By modeling empathy, we can teach compassion, resilience, and acceptance.
Our children are a reflection of us, and as they become more aware, they focus less on what we tell them and more on what we show them. School social worker Emily Kaiser emphasizes that we’re responsible for teaching kids how to handle their emotions. “It's so important for parents to model how to appropriately have all of the emotions, from the way you respond to a board game or a sport event to sitting in traffic.”
That means if we gossip or snark about other parents or exclude someone from a playdate, we’re saying that kind of behavior is acceptable. If we constantly scold, berate, or threaten our kids with negative consequences, we teach them that aggression is a good way to win an argument or to react when you’re upset.
Life is filled with challenges, but we can help our kids handle all those hurts – and avoid hurting others – by modeling kindness, resilience, and empathy.
Adjusting our own negative behaviors and setting positive examples are just some of the ways we can show our kids a world of love that will provide a buffer from the harsh world around them.
Want to learn more about “Redefining Bullying”? Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.