What If Words Do Hurt You?

You’re not my friend.” There’s something about these words that takes me back to when I was a child: I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. As someone with a non-verbal learning disability, negotiating social situations was a challenge — at times, it still is — and I think that I was often viewed as awkward.

  • I didn’t know how to step into conversations.
  • I didn’t know how to initiate discussions.
  • Standing around waiting for the perfect time was often viewed as a strange approach, and people either walked away or responded to me curtly. 

I became a lot more comfortable being happy with “me time.” I’ve always loved reading, but I think that I started to read even more because this was something that I could do alone. As others were having fun with friends, I could get lost in a good book … and maybe convince myself that I was okay with this. The truth is though, I wasn’t okay with this

  • I wanted to be invited to birthday parties.
  • I wanted people to call me on the phone.
  • I wanted somebody to ask me to play at recess.
  • I wanted to feel as though I wasn’t alone.

Over the years, my social skills have improved immensely (despite still having some awkward moments). I feel very fortunate to have amazing friends that not only support me, but accept me for who I am. 

But then I hear the words that plagued me as a child: “You’re not my friend.” 

  • I know that kids say this to each other.
  • I know that often children will be “best friends” moments later.
  • I know that you can’t force people to be friends.

And while I can know this, these words cause a lump to form in my throat. They cause a tightness to form in my stomach. They cause an ache. Because I was this child that wanted a “friend” — a best friend, a true friend, a friend like no other — more than anything else in the world, and it was these very words that tormented me every single day. I may not be able to “force friendship,” but imagine if we all just “chose kindness.” If we included people instead of excluding them with the words, “you’re not my friend,” would new and different friendships form? Would relationships change? Would the school environment itself start to change?

In retrospect, I wish that someone — maybe another student or maybe a trusted adult — understood how much these words hurt, and sat down with the group of us to help try to build empathy and see different perspectives. Maybe nobody realized that these words would stick with me. I’m not sure that I realized either, until I started to hear them again from students, and they triggered hurtful memories. I know that I try to have these talks with children now, and with modelling and support, show different ways that we can respond to our peers and words that we can choose other than “you’re not my friend.” The talks don’t always make an impact right away, but over time, I start to hear more kind words, see more inclusion, and view less tears and hurt feelings over a lack of friendship.

While sometimes I wonder if I need to move on from how hurtful “you’re not my friend” was to me as a child, then I think of another child hearing these same words, and I wonder, does he/she feel as I did? What can we do to prevent these hurt feelings? Maybe it’s too much of a Utopian ideal, but how I would love to more often hear the words, “You can be my friend!”


As part of my final project for Foundations 4, I am blogging about topics related to the four Foundations courses. While this post doesn’t use the terminology, there are links to self-regulation, stressors, the Social Domain, the Pro-Social Domain, the Emotional Domain, and the value in positive relationships. I hope that these blog posts provoke more conversations around these important topics.

8 thoughts on “What If Words Do Hurt You?

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Faige, and for sharing this post! I’m very eager to read it. I think that your line about “what we can do to be proactive in changing the scenario” is so important. Assuming positive intentions, maybe others don’t realize the impact of these words. Maybe it’s about sharing different points of view. Thanks for giving me more to think about!


  1. Hi Aviva,
    I found this post to be very insightful. As a child, I was very in tune to ‘words’. Words were my strength – but this meant I deeply interpreted and ‘felt’ them. And now the apple doesn’t fall far, and my kiddos are the same. Hearing the words, stewing on them, literally cracking under their pressure… asking me why peers or teachers would say such devastating things and what they truly ‘mean’ – seeking a meaning for these important words that goes far beyond how they were carelessly said. I empathize, but in the end I can’t solve this because even as adults my kids will face people carelessly using important words. As active and verbal kids with so much to share, when adults in their lives say “your wasting my time” and “you’re not more important than anyone else here” or even “your STILL not finished your writing work??” … or… when kids say “I don’t want to play with you” and “I hate being in your group, you write too slowly” – these words become burned into memory. For the record, these are real quotes from the classroom setting within the last 2 weeks.

    Whether the words are student to student, or teacher to student…etc… I think you’re right that words are critical. Understanding the power they wield and how to use them with careful consideration is really important learning for kiddos who may not have opportunities to learn and practice these skills outside of the school setting.

    Perhaps you can find a way to channel what you’ve learned about the power of words through your own lived experience into your teaching, while simultaneously letting go of the discomfort they caused you as a child. Reading specialist = words specialist in many ways…(that go far beyond only books) so perhaps you are in your current role for a reason!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I read it earlier today, and knew that I wanted to think about it before replying. I must admit that the examples that you shared here caused a visceral reaction in me. It was hard for me not to feel a bit choked up. I can really empathize with how your kids must have felt, even if hurt feelings and stress were never the intention of the words. Your comment reminds me about the importance of developing strong, positive relationships with ALL kids, but also facilitating that classroom community, so that students have these same relationships with each other. I was in a kindergarten class this week, and when a child asked to play and another child said, “No,” the classroom educator helped switch the question to, “How can I play?” This really allowed both children to work together to develop a plan for playing together, and got the other child to welcome that student into the play and develop that plan for playing together. Word choice really does matter!

      I’m not going to pretend that I’m perfect and haven’t said words that I’ve regretted, whether that was when I was a child, an educator, or in my personal life. But I think that my learning around Self-Reg (thanks to Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins), has made me more aware of my word choice and tone, and the power that both bring. In my role, I find myself thinking a lot about Self-Reg with both adult and student interactions. This has me reflecting on both tone and word choice, but also contemplating the “why” and “why now” behind word choices. I wonder if stress might be at play for both the ones making the statements and the ones who they are directed at. It’s interesting how Self-Reg and word choice are connected … I know it’s changed many of my word choices.

      Wishing you and your family the most amazing holiday! Thanks for sharing these stories and giving me a lot to reflect on today!

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