Your child is social and wants to make friends… but other kids aren’t interested. Here’s how to help your social child handle peer rejection.
I was sitting at the park bench, watching a little girl run around in the playground. She found two girls hunched over buckets, shovels and heaps of sand. She skipped to them, ready to join.
But instead of welcoming her into their play, they ignored her and even told her to go away.
So she left, and before long she found another child to talk to. But even this boy showed no signs of interest and preferred to play alone.
The little girl returned to her mom, confused and a bit dejected.
“Why won’t anyone play with me?”
How can parents help kids like this girl—a vibrant, cheerful and social little girl—handle peer rejection?
My son has reported a few times when other kids didn’t want to play with him. Another time, a girl asked to play with a group of friends only for the group to flat out exclude her.
How to help your child handle peer rejection
Helping a child deal with a friend’s rejection is real and can be painful for her. How can we help kids understand and better deal with it?
When kids confide in us, they’re trying to make sense of the emotions they feel. They turn to us hoping to define what just happened.
Show empathy with your child. This doesn’t mean challenging his story or being the devil’s advocate. And don’t lecture him on what went wrong (at least not right away).
Reiterate what he must be feeling into words he can understand: “It looks like you felt pretty bad when they didn’t want to play with you.” Acknowledge their feelings as real.
Encourage your child to show empathy.
Kids can be so blunt. They haven’t fine-tuned their social skills as well as adults have. So when a child wants to be alone or is wary of strangers, he may not have the social skills to be polite, smile and turn away. He won’t create an excuse or even hint that your child isn’t welcomed.
No—they say frank things like, “Go away,” or “Don’t talk to me.” I saw these two brothers at the playground ask another boy who approached them, “Who are you?!”
That said, remind your child of a time when she wanted to play alone. “Remember how you were working on your blocks and you didn’t want your cousin to join? Sometimes we just want to play by ourselves or don’t want to talk to other people.”
Help her understand that she herself might have been in those other kids’ shoes. Rejection won’t feel so terrible when she realizes she can relate a few times.
Don’t overreact or jump in.
Do you catch yourself wanting to step in the instant your child gets rejected? Before you do, decide whether doing so would do more harm than good.
Many kids aren’t as aware about peer rejection as I am. It’s just not a big deal to them as it can be for us. Many times, kids are able to move on without feeling offended.
But when we step in too quickly or too often, they might wonder whether something is wrong with them. “Why is mom making such a big deal about this? They just didn’t want to play with me, that’s all.”
Watching our kids get rejected is heartbreaking. No one wants to see their child try to make friends only for others to turn them away. But to our kids, these situations may not be such a big deal. Only when we step in are they made more aware of it.
Sometimes the best we can do is to state the fact and move on. “He just didn’t want to play.” Rather than dwell on the subject, encourage your child to move on. She can find someone else to play with, or something else to do.
Empathize and acknowledge their feelings, then encourage your child to forge ahead. Analyzing the situation too much or making a big deal can make them feel like there’s more to this than he knows.
Observe your child.
Every child is different. Observe your child and decide which situations are conducive for her. Observe her difficulties. Does she do better with big groups or small groups? How does she approach other kids? How can you help her better make friends?
Based on those questions and answers…
Give your child tools and tips.
It’s happening again and again. Your child goes the playground, approaches several kids, only to be rejected. Whether he’s hurt or unfazed, you know there’s a better way he could approach other kids.
Help your child better tackle playground etiquette with these tips:
- Remind your child to approach kids gently. Social kids are so friendly they forget or don’t realize that they can appear aggressive. People—even kids—appreciate personal space. They like gentle approaches. Remind your child that people need time and space to make friends.
- Encourage parallel play. Many young kids still practice parallel play. They play side-by-side doing the same thing instead of back-and-forth play. Two kids would be shoveling their own buckets, instead of together in one bucket. Your child may be eager for more back-and-forth play. But let her know it’s also okay to play the same activities sitting near them.
- Help your child recognize bullying behavior. Kids can be oblivious to bullying behavior. Or they might crave attention or company so much they’ll put up with mean kids. Don’t let that happen. If you see other kids being mean on purpose, encourage your child to find other friends or things to play with. I saw a group of kids tell a boy he could “play” with them, but all they did was run away from him whenever he showed up. It was heartbreaking to watch.
- Help your child recognize “stop” signals. Sometimes kids do give signals—and a child just didn’t notice them. They’re left with no choice but to blatantly tell the child, “Go away” or “I don’t want to play with you.” Teach your child those signals. Maybe the other kid looks or walks away. Maybe the kid doesn’t want to play what your child proposed. Maybe your child can ask the other kids what they would like to do.
Create conducive environments.
Play dates are popular for the controlled environment they offer. These kids are less of strangers than those they might meet at the park. They’re cousins, your friends’ kids, or even kids from a mom group.
Surround your child with kids younger than her age as well. Older kids tend to reject younger kids. Introducing her to younger kids can boost her confidence. Younger kids are more likely to look up to her and want to play.
Help build your child’s confidence.
An empowering skill to teach kids is resilience, or the ability to cope even with challenges. Help your child find ways to cope on her own without relying on you to solve her problems. Guide her through her feelings, but help her come up with ideas: “What can you do to make yourself feel better?” or “What can you do different next time?”
By creating her own solutions, she’ll see herself as someone who can get through a difficult situation. She’s strong. She doesn’t need to tolerate mean kids. She can do something about it. She’s empowered.
No one wants to see their child get rejected, especially when she’s trying so much to be a good friend to others. We can’t—nor should—save them from heartache, but we can help them cope with rejection.
Show empathy for her feelings and teach empathy by asking her to imagine what other kids feel. Don’t always jump in or overreact since kids tend to move on quickly. Give her tools to handle peer rejection (looking for hints, for instance). And create conducive environment through play dates with family, friends or mommy groups.
As parents, we feel so helpless witnessing our kids experience rejection of any kind. But we’re not helpless. Use these tips to better prepare your child to play with others, even if they don’t always want to play with her.
Get more tips:
- 5 Easy Tips for Kids to Learn Empathy
- 23 Children’s Books about Being a Good Friend
- 6 Mistakes Parents Make When Socializing Your Child [FREE Download]
- 9 Playground Rules You and Your Kids Should Remember
- 7 Ways to Teach Your Toddler to Share
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