‘Mommy, why won’t Ed and Danny let me play with them?’
My son had tears in his eyes, the pain of rejection apparent in every little furrow on his brow, in every quiver of his bottom lip.
I narrowed my eyes, whipped out my ‘Cape-of-Protection’, assumed my superhero stance and was ready to step in. My heart was breaking for him – we all know the hurt of social exclusion. That sinking sensation of being left out. I desperately wanted to shield him from it.
Then I stopped.
And I reminded myself that I won’t be at his side every time he experiences rejection and social exclusion. My role as parent is to help prepare him for when it happens, not solve his problem for him.
I packed my Cape away, and put on my Thinking Cap.
Here’s what I came up with as an action plan…
Practice Makes Perfect
Many children find it challenging to assert themselves. As parents we can use role play in the safe environment of home to give our kids space to try out different responses when faced with a ‘You can’t play!’ situation.
Kids can occasionally feel like they need to protect their own patch, and may offer default rejections of another child without really thinking.
Offense is their defense.
If we can give our children the tools to challenge this in a positive way it can help to break down those barriers and provide a way into the group.
Responding respectfully, with indisputable facts, is a very powerful tool, and role-playing is a great way to learn this technique of effective conflict resolution. Kidpower has a fantastic list of suggestions for words to use to counter various rejections – here are just two examples:
Reason: “You’re not good enough.”
Response: “I’ll get better if I practice.”
Reason: “You cheat.”
Response: “I didn’t mean to. Let’s make sure we agree on the rules ahead of time.”
It takes either a deliberately mean, or very confident child to still reject a peer in the face of such responses. Practicing them with your child can help them to feel empowered and more confident in their delivery.
And if they still experience rejection, then coaching that walking away with their head held high may be required. But crucially, they can do so in the knowledge that they have been true to themselves, and behaved in a positive and open way – the issue is no longer theirs to hold. Their self-esteem will blossom, despite the end result.
But they may need a little help there too…
Being socially excluded knocks your confidence whatever age you are. But children who have a healthy self-esteem are better prepared to process the hurt and move on. Building their inner strength is one of the best ways to help your child be ready for all those situations in life.
Dr Laura Markham at Aha! Parenting has some brilliant ideas on how we can help our children to become empowered, simply by choosing the words we use around them more carefully.
Simple tips like avoiding negative labels, and providing positive feedback to specific actions and situations rather than generic comments like ‘You’re really smart!’ combine to generate a sense of value within our children.
By sending positive messages via our daily interactions we not only strengthen our own bond with them, but also help them to build a strong inner core of self-worth and confidence. With this in place, when faced with the inevitable challenges that life throws in their path our children can draw on their inner power pack.
This is not about encouraging our kids to shoulder the blame for their social exclusion. Instead it’s suggesting we teach them how to analyse objectively the ways in which they may be perceived when they relate to others.
This is a great life skill for our children to develop, as it promotes personal accountability and empathy.
Here are some ways we can encourage our kids to reflect on their own contribution to social situations, and help them to work out if they are behaving in a way that may be affecting their likability. Different elements here may have more or less relevance depending on the age of the child concerned:
- Physical appearance – chat about how body language can convey silent messages, and how personal hygiene, and a neat or scruffy appearance can contribute to their overall image. Take deliberate steps to boost their overall body image.
- Words – what you say, and how you say it can have a significant impact on how you come across. Children often don’t realize this until it is pointed out to them.
- Traits that repel others – talk with your child about what puts them off other kids – for example: bragging, misplaced humour, ignoring stop signals, not being a good sport
Work with your child to help them see if they can identify any of these factors within themselves. If they are finding the concept hard, it can help to ask if there are any kids they prefer not to play with sometimes, and why, before turning the spotlight around. Then, help them identify ways in which they could do things differently.
That said, not all influencing factors are ones your child can or want to do something about. Two other key factors are:
- Difference – the ways in which your child may differ from their peers. Examples can include wearing glasses, academic ability, introvert vs extrovert personalities
- Home life – we are a product of our environment, and some children struggle to relate to others who come from different backgrounds. It can be as simple as the difference between coming from a large or small family, or as complex as social, economic, or ethnic diversity
Dealing with these factors requires a different approach. If your child wears glasses, for example, or has a different home life from their peers, then helping them foster an appreciation of their difference and learning to accept and value it will be required.
Acceptance and self-love create an inner peace and strength that is hard to beat.
All the assertiveness, self-esteem and self-reflection in the world may still not alter the fact that your child may experience social exclusion from time-to-time. And it will hurt, so we need to help them build resilience into their inner power pack too, with these useful pointers:
- Look Logically – is there a simple, valid reason why they can’t join in? Are they too young/old/big/small? Are they wearing the right gear for that type of play? Teach them to take a step back and assess a situation objectively – if they are too young for this, talk them through it so they can learn as they grow.
- Practice Problem Solving – maybe the reason they can’t play is easy to resolve. Changing into sneakers, fetching a colored bib from the changing room, asking someone to explain the rules, requesting a trial period, etc. Teach them to look for solutions.
- Cast a Wide Net – encourage your kids to forge connections with more than just a few friends. This network can help to soften the blow when social exclusion strikes.
- Accept and Move On – this one it tough, as it involves helping your child to process the hurt and accept and honor the other child’s decision. They will find this easier if they have a strong core of self-acceptance in place (ie, ‘there is nothing wrong with me’ and ‘I value myself’). Encourage your child to identify those occasions when they are included, as they happen. Over time this builds a strong core of self-worth that can be drawn on later.
- Demonstrate Dignity – retaliation may feel good, but it ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Coach your kids in the art of dignified silence, and suggest a No-Bad-Mouthing
- Facilitate Friendships – encourage your kids to invite friends over, and make time to take them to social activities when you can so they can practice their social skills
For additional guidance on building general resilience checkout this great book from paediatrician Dr Kenneth Ginsburg – A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving your Child Roots and Wings. A summary of his inspirational ‘7 C’s of Resilience’ concept can be found here.
Handling the Emotional Fallout
When our children are left out their emotions can take a battering. It’s important we don’t neglect the unseen hurt they may be carrying inside and make sure they have the tools to deal with it. This is not something we should leave to chance, and is actually a job we can be doing every single day via Emotional Encouragement.
Kelly Bartlett, in her wonderful book Encouraging Words for Kids says:
When kids grow up accepting their emotions, they are better able to process them and respond to adverse situations.
She adds that emotional encouragement from parents shows children that their feelings are healthy, normal, and able to be managed. It means showing your child you accept them and their emotions unconditionally, imparting strength and resilience to your child, and a confidence in their emotions.
Bartlett offers a perfect example of this in action, in respect of a girl who had been excluded from a game at the playground.
Instead of offering a fix, the mother simply said:
‘You’re angry about being told there wasn’t any room in the game for you, Your feelings are hurt.’
This effectively gave the girl permission to be upset, and after a good, long cry, validated by the mother’s words of encouragement – ‘It’s okay to cry’ – the girl worked through her feelings and was then able to engage in dialogue with her mother about the importance of inclusion – in her own time, and from a position of strength and independence.
Social Exclusion vs Bullying – A Final Note
These are two very different things, and it’s important you child learns to tell the difference. Bullying is about power, and dominance. It involves repeated and deliberate intent to cause physical and/or emotional pain.
Social exclusion CAN be a form of bullying, but often it’s simply a matter of preference and choice on the part of the other child.
This website has a really useful overview of what constitutes bullying actions. It includes a heading called Social or Relational Bullying, under which ‘Leaving someone out on purpose’ and ‘Telling other children not to be friends with someone’ are included as examples.
And rightly so.
When my daughter asked to join a ball game in the playground last week and was told by another girl she couldn’t, the reason was simply that each team already had its full complement of players. My girl was ‘deliberately excluded’, and felt sad and hurt as a result.
But this was not bullying.
When it happened again the next day, however, and within minutes a different girl was invited to swap-in for another participant, that line became blurred.
On day three this was repeated, and my daughter was pretty sure she was being left out on purpose. We had now stepped into the realm of bullying. The perpetrator was swiftly identified by my daughter and her friends. They boycotted the game en masse and, thankfully on this occasion, the issue was resolved.
It’s vital we engage in dialogue with our children about what constitutes bullying so they can recognize it when it does occur, but also give them the tools to deal with the hurt when they are simply being left out for one reason or another.
Here are some useful action plans to help us with that, and all the points raised above:
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Everyday interactions with our children offer ample opportunities for helping prepare them for dealing with social exclusion:
- Keep a watchful eye on your child in social interactions so you can identify areas where they may need guidance
- Practice using active emotional encouragement as a way of showing your child that while hurt can be painful, it can also be managed and worked through
- Take every chance you get to point out the difference between bullying and social exclusion, explaining the appropriate positive course of action in either case
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Social exclusion can occur at any time and in many different ways. We can help our kids by providing low-level, ongoing encouragement that gives them the tools, and helps prepare their foundations of inner strength so they can cope whenever it strikes.
- Encourage the development of problem-solving skills in all areas of your child’s life. The skill of solution-building is a strength they can call on in many scenarios
- In calm moments model self-reflection, and help your child to see how taking responsibility for their own actions can change their perception of any given situation, and the outcome of their interactions
- Share your own disappointments with your child, and how positive self-talk helps you to overcome the hurt inside