Soon, all across the nation, children will partake in Valentine’s Day rituals such as sharing cards, treats, and friendly exchanges. For many children, this is a fun and exciting experience, however, for just as many, Valentine’s Day can be filled with stress, anxiety, and fear.
According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social Learning Stick, and the founder of the Make It Stick Program, this may be especially true for children with neurodiversity and atypical development. “Sometimes these children are overlooked or passed up for celebration invitations or maybe their Valentine’s Day box stays scant with cards as compared to their peers.”
For children with autism and other unique learning abilities, peer understanding and acceptance increase the opportunity for social-emotional learning and the likelihood of social interaction. “It is important to think about the mental health of all children,” Sautter encourages. “Some kids are misunderstood or stand out from their peers because of social communication or emotional intelligence delays. But there is one thing that unites us all: Everyone has a need to feel seen and heard, and we all want to belong.”
Sautter shares that while every day is a day to share love and affection, Valentine’s Day is a symbolic opportunity for parents to teach their children about diversity, inclusion, empathy, and compassion. “This day can be an outlet for important conversations that support love, respect, and curiosity for someone’s unique experience. It is important for children to know that none of us are exactly the same, and that is something to celebrate.”
Social-Emotional Implications On Giving
While most of us recognize that it feels pleasant to receive, research has also shown positive implications in giving. Different forms of gratitude light up different parts of the brain, which means we can actually change our brain’s architecture and reinforce pathways of empathy and compassion. In addition, when we act in service to others, neurochemicals are released that boost our mood state. Simply put, when we give to others, it not only fills the recipient’s bucket but our bucket, too.
Sautter believes that teachers hit the mark when it comes to inclusivity and giving to others on Valentine’s Day through their encouragement of cards for all students within a classroom. Because of Covid, however, she encourages parents to also step forward. “Kids are getting fewer social and emotional opportunities to strengthen the skills required for friendship-making and connecting with others. As parents, we can help our children notice and compassionately think about those kids who may get left out, and practice the art of giving.”
Four Ways To Use Social-Emotional Practices For All Children This Valentine's Day
1. Start At Home: While we may not control what happens at school, we can help our children feel loved and seen within our care. When parents model connection, it becomes neurologically ingrained in the child’s head, and heart. And as your child feels safe and connected, they are more apt to empathize and validate others.
2. Normalize And Celebrate Differences: Discuss with your child that everyone shares similarities while also having differences. Help them notice how they are the same and different from others, and how these variations of self are beautiful and useful.
3. Model Thinking Of Others: Create family rituals with a focus on consideration of others. “Do something nice for neighbors or your elderly grandparent, just because,” says Sautter. “In being consistent and through your modeling, these acts of kindness become part of your child’s wiring.”
4. Invite Inclusivity: When it comes to Valentine’s Day, talk to your child about what it may feel like to be left out. Ask your child or their teacher if there are any kids in their class that may need extra attention. Create awareness to get kids out of their own bubble and recognize that we all are deserving of empathy and compassion.
As we step into Valentine’s Day this year, we can teach our children what really matters - love of self and others, celebrating the similarities and differences that make us all a special piece of this very big world.