My Daughter Is Terrified of Being Unpopular & I Don't Know How to Help

crying girl at school
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My 9-year-old daughter is convinced that her popularity has been declining since kindergarten. Recently, while I was driving her to her last day of Minecraft day camp, we were listening to Chris Young and Cassadee Pope's "Think of You." We both sang along with the words: We used to be the life of the party. We used to be the ones that they wished they were

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"This song reminds me of me," she said sadly. I felt the earnestness in her expression as she looked at me, but I kept my eyes on the road. It was early in the morning, and I'd had only one cup of coffee. I wasn't sure if I had the emotional fortitude to handle the angst-filled conversation I felt was coming or the patience to be the shoulder she required, but I did my best to have both.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "It's a song about a boy missing his girlfriend."

"I used to be the life of the party," she said.

I parked and looked at her.

"I used to be the one they wished they were. That's me," she continued. "But now it's like they don't know I'm alive."  

My heart shattered into a million glass shards, slicing me open from the inside out. The girl I adore -- the smart, openhearted, creative, empathetic child I'm raising -- feels less-than.

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"Baby girl, it breaks my heart that you think like this," I told her. "It hurts me in a way you can't ever know, when you think you are less-than. You're awesome. You're smart, beautiful, kind, generous, funny, outgoing, and wonderful. I don't know why you're so concerned about popularity."

We've been having this conversation a lot lately. In the past few years, five of her closest friends have moved out of state, and she feels their loss keenly.

Last year, she was placed in a third-grade class with none of her old friends. Her new classmates didn't share anything with her other than a teacher. At bedtime, my daughter would tell me she had no one to play with during recess. Her body would shake and her eyes would fill with big, rolling tears. I could see her anxiety overpowering her. But I felt helpless to stop it.

The truth is, I understand how she feels. I've made and lost plenty of friends in my lifetime, and I know what it's like to be excluded. It's a pain I'd rather not share with my daughter. Above all, I want her to understand that popularity is less important than respecting herself.

I also recognize that her hurt feelings are her emotional truth. It's just that she feels things so completely and with her entire body. When she talks about her lackluster popularity, I remind her that, yes, she does have girls she plays with, at school, in our neighborhood, at tennis, and at other after-school activities. She's not alone. Sometimes she forgets that when she goes off on an emotional tear, and it's hard to wrangle her back, make her feel safe, and blot out the anxiety.

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But that morning, on the last day of day camp, was not the time or place to have an emotional meltdown.

"You know what?" I offered. "When you go to middle school in two years, other schools will merge together and you'll find new friends. People you really like and who really like you."

"I wish I could go there now and start over," she said. "I just want to start over."

She squeezed the straps of her backpack, and I'd swear I saw two of her loose teeth wiggle. 

"You gotta stop," I said. The emotional drain she was swirling around in needed to be plugged.

She gave me a look that said: "You don't understand. Don't tell me to stop. This feeling really freaking hurts!"

The reality is, this is something she has to learn to cope with. It's part of what makes her her. And I won't be a good parent if I try to fix everything. My job is not to solve problems for her, but to help her build self-confidence and coping skills so she can function in the world.

Sometimes I'll ask, "On a scale of 1–10, how much does this upset you?" Most of the time I think she'll say 1,000,000 and she actually says 4. Then I help calibrate what she feels to how she behaves and pull open the jaws of her emotional trap.

But that day, for no apparent reason except that she's a child, her expression suddenly shifted. She looked at me and shook her head before racing me up the stairs to the classroom where her camp was held. She dropped her bag and smiled as she waved good-bye. I looked back while walking away, to make sure her smile wasn't just for show, but she was already engrossed in her activity. I heard three kids call her name. I left, not knowing how to handle her fears, but satisfied that, at least for today, she'll be fine.

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