“Let me help you, honey,” I said, punching a straw through a Capri Sun. Sometimes the noise-level reached a deafening pitch in the cafeteria. But I’d gotten used to it as a lunch mom. I kept my eye on the little dark-haired girl sitting on the bench near the wall. She sipped her juice box, her eyes alert as she listened to some girls talking nearby. I wondered if she’d join in. I wondered if the girl closest to her would look her way or draw her into the conversation. But several minutes passed and nothing changed. The little dark-haired girl continued to eat alone.
The little girl was my daughter. And it was hard to watch. But since her two best friends moved away, my daughter hadn’t had anyone else to sit with at lunch or play with at recess. I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t made any new friends. Was fourth grade too late for that? But there are reasons that explain a kid sitting alone at lunch or alone in general. Here are 5 of them—and what you can do to help.
1. She may be noticeably different, either physically or intellectually.
My daughter doesn’t look different from other girls her age, but she carries an EpiPen on her everywhere she goes. She has food allergies, and her classmates know it. Maybe they’re afraid of what a pizza slice or a peanut could do to her. Or maybe she just had two close friends who moved away. And everyone knows that too.
Any little difference can set your child apart, says clinical psychologist and author Anthony E. Wolf, whether it’s a learning disability or giftedness, being too short or too tall, or even having braces or acne. What you can do is empathize with your child. “I’m sorry you haven’t made any new friends and I know it’s hard for you right now.” You can also pray. I ask God all the time to give my daughter friends who are kind.
2. He may lack social skills or be off-putting with others his age.
I used to volunteer at recess, and I spent hours observing children. A child I knew who was on his own a lot acted younger than the other third graders and often did things he thought were funny but really annoyed the other kids. Similarly, a girl I observed followed other girls around, hoping to join in, but she hardly spoke.
Sometimes kids just develop later than their peers. Eventually, they’ll catch up, but you can help by exposing them to more activities where socializing is key. Talk to the school psychologist or guidance counselor for suggestions.
3. She may not share the same interests as her classmates.
When my daughter was in second grade, a bunch of girls in her class liked to practice dance routines on the blacktop at recess. My daughter would eye them from afar. My son’s classmates similarly liked to play pick-up baseball on the field, but he didn’t like baseball and sometimes found himself on his own.
You can encourage your child to try new things to fit in with the others, but it’s OK if your child’s just not interested. You can help build her self-esteem by encouraging her to pursue her own interests. Even though it’s hard to see your child without friends, it’ll only make things harder if she knows her problem has become yours as well. Instead, support her interests and keep things comfortable and fun at home.
4. He’s new to the school and hasn’t been able to break into any social group.
My son started middle school the year the world shut down from COVID. Then, after a year of virtual learning during the pandemic, he returned to middle school in-person with a deeper voice and six inches taller. Not only had many kids physically changed during the lockdown, but friendships seemed to as well. My son suddenly felt left out.
Encourage your child to do well with his schoolwork and to focus on activities he enjoys. Succeeding in areas outside of friendships will boost his self-esteem. People are naturally drawn to those who are comfortable with themselves.
5. She may be quieter than the “popular” kids.
According to Wolff, kids tend to break into social groups in early adolescence. One group includes the popular kids who are outgoing with advanced social skills and then the other group includes everybody else who probably feels left out.
Instead of lamenting your child’s lack of popularity, thank God for who she is and show her that love.
Two years after my daughter’s lonely fourth grade experience, she’s thriving in middle school, where there are many new kids unaware of her food allergies. She’s joined an all-girls robotics team because she’s a huge LEGO fan. And she’s met new friends in orchestra class, which is a new thing for her. Sometimes all kids need is time to grow, time to experience new things, and acceptance from you along the way.
Sometimes all kids need is time to grow, time to experience new things, and acceptance from you along the way.
Do you have a kid sitting alone at lunch? Do you have any idea why?
ASK YOUR CHILD…
What’s your favorite thing for me to pack in your lunchbox?