It’s one of those heartbreaking yet inevitable kinds of things you’ll hear from your child:
“Mommy, those kids won’t let me play with them.”
Your child’s rejection by his peers can be a hard enough pill to swallow; add in your own unpleasant childhood memories of being rejected for a double dose of uncomfortable feelings. It’s a fundamental part of our human nature that we want to be accepted by others.
Since our children will experience rejection throughout their lives (a friend doesn’t want to play, didn’t make the team, didn’t get the promotion, you get it), it’s crucial that we equip them with knowledge of how to move through and overcome these uncomfortable situations, especially when it comes to peer rejection — a common stressor for many toddlers.
That begs the question — what can you do when a playmate rejects your toddler, and why do children exclude each other in the first place?
To help your child face peer rejection, you’ll want to do three general things:
- Listen and observe as your child plays with others
- Model being a good friend to your child
- Teach your child healthy coping strategies
Rejection is not fun, but it is a fact of life. Children who learn how to cope with peer rejection effectively are often more resilient in life. I say that because resilience is not just a buzzword for no reason — resilient people are more likely to have a stronger sense of self, greater personal motivation, and less anxiety. We should teach our children that they must create boundaries with their peers–even those who reject them– and be kind to others in the midst of finding a friendship tribe of their own.
In this post, we’ll talk about five strategies you can use when your child experiences rejection from a playmate. But first, let’s discuss why children — and people in general — essentially say “no” to others.
Why Do Kids Reject Others?
Rejection hurts. I think everyone has experienced being rejected at least once in their life, and I’m sure no one can attest that it was pleasant. Maybe you were declined an invitation to your friend’s birthday party in elementary school, or you didn’t get to sport a pair of those iconic Steve Madden platform sandals that were just all that and a bag of chips in the ’90s.
From disliking one’s style or behavior to feeling weirded out by someone straying from cultural norms, people reject other people because they are different from them or make them feel unsafe.
Differences in Personal Preferences and Social Norms
How much does your child fit the “traditional mold”? Peer rejection often stems from personal differences in likes and dislikes and what’s considered acceptable in society. When children are rejected, the things they like or enjoy doing are typically regarded as uncool or “out.” In no way does this indicate what your child is doing is wrong — it’s just how the rejecting child or group feels about the situation (“She likes to play with bugs,” or “He plays football and we don’t like football”).
Being Uncomfortable With Unfamiliar People
Unfamiliarity between the rejected child and the rejecting child can cause a reluctance to seek common ground with others or build new friendships for the rejecting child. The child or group that is doing the excluding may prefer what is already being done versus doing something different or trying something new (“She does gymnastics but I don’t,” or “I don’t want to play on the swings right now”).
Aggressive, bossy, threatening, or breaking with social norms are typically unwanted behaviors that are grounds for rejection in many eyes. Like adults, children pick up on a person’s “likeability” based on the similarities between them and whether they feel safe being around that person.
According to research, some common unwanted behaviors include:
- Aggressive behavior: It could be physical or verbal, like “She spits at people,” or “He makes fun of everybody.”
- Bossy behavior: To exert some control over a situation, people exhibit domineering behavior, like “She always tells me what to do,” or “He’s very bossy.”
- Threatening behavior: Some people exhibit threatening behavior to unsettle others or to interfere, like “He always talks over me when I’m talking,” or “She says silly things to distract us when the teacher is talking.”
- Straying from social norms: This can be deviating from what’s widely accepted, such as breaking school rules or ignoring common social cues, like not making eye contact when speaking. For example, “He steals pencils from the teacher,” or “She doesn’t ask before taking my things.”
It makes sense that our children want to be around people they like and not with people they don’t. We, as adults, are the same way!
However, since not everybody can be our cup of tea, knowing how to face rejection and regulate our emotions is beneficial for our mental and emotional health. In our twenties and upwards, we by now know how to uphold boundaries, reflect on our behavior, and change accordingly. Our children are still learning how to do that intense work, but there are some things we can do to guide them through the uncomfortable experience of peer rejection.
Free RESOURCE LIBRARY
Sign up below and get FREE access to the Discerning Parenting Resource Library!
Here are five strategies you can use when you suspect your toddler has been or is being rejected by his or her playmates:
1. Observe Your Child
Ever notice how your reaction can sway your child’s response? Say, if your child falls on the playground and looks at you, do you stay calm and reassuring, or plaster panic on your face?
Your child will likely follow suit to your reaction, so if you start to suspect your child’s exclusion from others, say, on the playground, keep observing your child.
Chances are that little nudge “out of my way!” will be quickly forgotten through distraction. Before your child perceives any wrongdoing, he may skedaddle onto something else.
By paying attention to your toddler and his interactions with playmates, you can see if he is exhibiting any unwanted behavior.
2. Listen To Your Child
A core aspect of positive parenting is listening to your child, whether in body language or babbling. Taking time to listen to what your child has to say builds respect, strengthens your bond, and can give you an insight into what’s going on inside your child’s head.
If we listen to our children, we get closer to identifying the source of their behavior. Maybe your son or daughter is upset because their friend didn’t want to share a toy or didn’t want to play with them at the park.
Hear them out and be an active listener. Pause what you’re doing, get down on their level, make eye contact, and repeat back to them what they say.
“Oh, so you didn’t like it when your friends said that they didn’t like your headband?”
3. Share Your Story
Dig into your memory to see if you have any likewise stories to share with your child, emphasizing how you felt during the experience and what you did to overcome those passing feelings.
Remind your child that feelings aren’t permanent, and know that often when kids say things like “You are not my friend anymore!” or “You can’t come to my birthday party!” they are expressing frustration and do not know how else to verbalize their discontent.
4. Guide Your Child To Problem Solve
Press the pause button on the desire to rescue your child from any emotional discomfort, and instead guide your child to problem-solve the matter by asking open-ended questions:
“What could you do? What choices do you have? What are your ideas?”
Go over some options with your child, like choosing to play with someone else or talking to the rejecting playmate using an “I feel” statement, like “I feel bad when you say that.”
You may not always think your child makes the best choice, but you can support them with hugs and a listening ear. “What could you do to make yourself feel better?” is another excellent open-ended question that your child can learn to problem-solve.
5. Practice How to Be a Good Friend
After observing your child around their playmates, you may notice that some of your child’s behaviors, preferences, or loveable quirks aren’t so loveable to others (that’s why it’s important to teach your kiddo how to find a good friend – but that’s a whole different post!), like constantly singing or being obsessed with Legos when most everyone else is playing with the Avengers. Not everyone will want to be your child’s friend, and that’s okay — but do show your child what being a good friend (or respectable playmate) looks like.
Read books and watch movies with your child that exemplify good-friend characteristics, like honesty, empathy, and being a good listener (Imaginationsoup.net is a fantastic resource!).
When you interact with your friends or partner, model active listening by maintaining eye contact and engaged body language. Show your child how to handle conflict resolution by owning up to your mistakes and apologizing. Turn-taking. Food-sharing. Helping out when asked (or not). This doesn’t even have to be explicit because you know your toddler always has her eyes on you!
Not everyone will like your child as they grow up (Yes, I know he or she is your [insert one of the many nicknames for your child here]), but it’s a fact! The more we build them up to be resilient in the face of rejection, the easier it will be for them to let that sting heal later in life.
Has your child faced rejection yet? What did they do? What did you do, Mama?
Share with me in the comments below!