One of the hardest parts of parenting can be hearing that your child has been excluded by their peers. Social exclusion can take many forms–from being ignored on the playground to being left out of a birthday party–and watching your child experience feeling left out may even trigger your own hurtful memories.
A big question asked by parents when their child is faced with social exclusion is: “Do I get involved or stay out of it?” While the answer may not be clear cut, there are still a number of things parents can do to help their child handle feeling left out. Here are a few ways to help your child cope with exclusion and feel empowered to find healthy friendships:
- Listen and validate. When your child first tells you they are being left out at school or child care, it’s hard not to overreact in the moment. Instead of interrupting or overwhelming them with questions, simply encourage them to talk and be a good listener. Do not interrupt what they’re saying or diminish their feelings in any way. Fight any urge to criticize your child’s behavior in this vulnerable moment and simply allow them to share. Once they are done sharing, let them know you understand how they feel and validate their emotions. Make sure they know they are loved and have a right to feel safe and secure in their friendships.
- Make sure home is a safe space. While it’s important for our children to feel safe and secure in their homes all the time, it’s especially important to make home a “safe space” for children who might be experiencing social isolation with their peers. Providing a calm and stable environment, where children’s value and worth are confirmed by loving interactions with family members,can go a long way in healing the hurt caused by occasional social exclusion. Children with secure and loving homes also tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. Lastly, remind them that at home they will always be included and that they can always count on you. While a parent can’t replace a friend, they can act as support and companionship during periods of loneliness.
- Teach healthy ways to cope. Helping our children find healthy ways to cope with anxiety, loneliness and other feelings is a skill they can benefit from for life. It’s also helpful when it comes to helping your child process their feelings of rejection or social exclusion. Encourage your child to pursue things like exercise or playing sports, journaling or painting, listening to music or dancing,or simply getting outside as a way to come to terms with their feelings. Beyond regulating the nervous system, finding a new hobby as a coping strategy may also lead your child to new friendships with people who share the same interests.
- Broaden their social experiences. This is your opportunity to play party planner! Help your child cultivate friendships in different social circles. For younger children, this means fostering early friendships through playdates. For older children, this might mean signing them up for a new sport at a recreation center or club at the local library. While your child may be resistant at first, broadening their social circles will boost their confidence in the long term and provide security on days they may be feeling left out of other friend groups.
- Know when to ask for help. Fortunately for most children, periods of social exclusion or feeling left out are temporary. But there are occasions where social exclusion may progress into relational aggression. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, relational aggression is “harm within relationships that is caused by covert bullying or manipulative behavior.” If you ever feel as though your child is being physically threatened or harmed at school, reach out to school officials immediately. If your child is showing signs of depression to the point of affecting their everyday life, reach out to their healthcare provider or school counselor for a referral to a family or children’s therapist.
Parents should keep in mind that children today are also faced with the pressures that accompany social media. Due to the nature of social media, it’s likely that all children–even popular ones–will encounter some degree of social exclusion or relational aggression. For more information on how to tell if your child is struggling, visit www.kidshealth.org, www.healthychildren.org, or www.verywellfamily.com.