There’s nothing that hurts parents more than when our child is in pain. When they’re small, we can try to safeguard them with cushioned corners when they’re learning to walk, helmets and elbow pads for young bikers and skateboarders, and of course car seats and safety belts everywhere we go.
But there’s one place we can’t follow and protect them, and that’s into the classroom and playground. We trust teachers and school staff to keep our kids safe from injury, but there’s not much they can do about a broken heart.
Of all the days in the year, Valentine’s Day seems designed to remind people who have few friends and no sweetheart that they are alone. It shines a light on those who walk the schoolyard and hallways singly rather than in couples or cliques.
And it can really hurt.
In most elementary school classrooms, teachers have rules to avoid meanness or ostracization. Usually every child brings identical valentine cards to pass out to each classmate, often walking around the room to drop a card in each decorated envelope or shoebox. No one is left out, and no one is singled out. You can ask your child’s teacher how they handle this holiday in their classroom if you have concerns that your less-social child might be left out of the valentine loop while neurotypical social butterflies exchange cards among themselves.
Something changes once students get to middle school, though. Everything is different – new campus, unfamiliar schedule, and different teachers and classmates every period.
Neurotypical students somehow understand that Valentine’s Day is going to be different in middle school. They realize that handing out little cards with cartoon characters and valentine puns (“Bee mine!”) is for kids, not for teens or preteens. If your child is in a self-contained special education class, it is possible that the teacher may continue with the elementary school tradition of a valentine card exchange; check with your child’s case manager to find out what is expected. In general education classes, though, this should not be expected. The first year of middle school is usually the first year of no more all-class valentine exchanges.
Sadly, our teens on the spectrum may not see this change coming. It can be devastating, after years of coming home every Valentine’s Day with 25 or 30 cards, to come home without a single one. If they haven’t been told in advance what to expect, this can be heart breaking.
As parents, we try to prepare our kids for the many differences of middle school, including how teens handle Valentine’s Day. Your child may see some classmates exchanging cards with their best friends or their crushes, but they should understand that this does not extend to giving a card to everyone.
We can’t shield our children from feeling hurt or left out at times, but we can remind them of some important truths:
- There are people who love you unconditionally, just the way you are.
- Not everyone in your class is your friend, and that is okay.
- If you don’t have a best friend (or girlfriend/boyfriend) right now, that doesn’t mean you’ll never have one.
- Focus on the things you love, follow your passionate interests, and do what makes you happy.
- Hang in there! It gets better!
- The future has wonderful surprises in store for you.