I had a chance to see “Dear Evan Hansen” at Playhouse Square in Cleveland earlier this summer. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the musical centers around the suicide of a high school student, Connor, and the after-effects on his family and fellow students. The main protagonist, Evan Hansen, is an anxious, lonely high schooler who – through a series of half-truths and coincidences – becomes co-president of the group designed to remember and honor Connor.
At one point, Evan and an imaginary Connor sing about how they are “the losers who keep waiting to be seen.”
They go on to sing:
“No one should come and go,
And have no one know he was ever even here.
No one deserves to disappear.”
These lines have stuck with me, even weeks after having seen the show.
While I have written about how to deal with and help prevent school bullying, social isolation can be just as difficult for children. Feeling alone, as Evan and Connor did in the show, can lead to anxiety, depression and, in some cases, even acts of violence either against themselves or others.
For children who find it hard to make friends or fit in, school increases stress and unhappiness. If you notice that your child seems to be struggling to find a group of friends, the first thing you can do is ask how they’re feeling and let them know that you’ve noticed they have been acting sad. Kids – especially teens – often feel their parents don’t understand what they’re going through, so empathizing with them and sharing personal experiences of not fitting in can help.
Sometimes it can help to go through role play to help them feel more comfortable in social situations. For younger kids, you can start by planning structured activities with one or two peers, starting with short periods of time and increasing the time spent with each other as they get more comfortable. For older kids, you can encourage them to join a group or sports team that appeals to them, either through school or through another organization.
When this isn’t enough, you may need to enlist the help of a professional, either with a school counselor/therapist or through a psychologist outside of the school.
Many kids are fortunate to have a well-established peer group. The best thing for parents to do is help encourage them to be includers instead of excluders. While most kids are taught not to bully, they don’t always understand the negative impacts of passive or relational bullying. This type of bullying can include purposeful acts, like excluding a former friend from hanging out at lunch or spreading gossip, or it can be unintentional, such as forgetting to invite a student to a birthday party.
We can fight this type of behavior by raising a generation of children who accept and reach out to include all their peers. You can do so by modeling empathy and inclusivity and by encouraging your children to make new friends or invite new students to their table at lunch. If you see or hear that your child is being socially inclusive, make sure to praise them and continue to encourage kindness.
By teaching social kindness and inclusivity, we can help battle all forms of isolation and bullying, ensuring that nobody feels forgotten.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.