Your child is social and wants to make friends, but other kids aren’t interested. Here’s how to help your child rejected by peers.
You’re sitting at the park bench, watching your little boy run around in the playground. He finds two kids hunched over buckets, shovels, and heaps of sand, and skips to them, ready to join.
But instead of welcoming him into their play, they ignore him and even tell him to go away.
So, he leaves, and before long finds another child to talk to. But even this child shows no signs of interest and prefers to play alone.
He returns to you, confused and dejected.
“Why won’t anyone play with me?” he asks.
How to help a child rejected by peers
Just as easily children can make friends, so too can they feel rejected by their peers. A group of friends can outright exclude one child, and kids who don’t know one another might refuse to play with someone unfamiliar.
And while adults have learned better social cues and behaviors, kids are still learning this valuable skill. Helping a child rejected by peers is real, and the experience can be painful, ridden with anxiety and loneliness.
How can you help your rejected child—so vibrant, cheerful and social—handle peer rejection and better manage it?
1. Show empathy
When your child confides in you, she’s trying to make sense of the emotions she feels. She turns to you, hoping to understand this social interaction.
Before brushing her emotions aside or even showering her with reassurances, show empathy instead. This doesn’t mean challenging her story, being the devil’s advocate, or lecturing her on what went wrong.
Describe what she must be feeling into words she can understand. “It looks like you felt pretty bad when they didn’t want to play with you.” Acknowledge that her feelings as real so that she feels heard and validated.
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2. Encourage your child to show empathy
Kids can be so blunt, especially since 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 once saw these two brothers at the playground respond to another boy who approached them, “Who are you?!”
That said, remind your child of a time when he had his preferences and wanted to play alone. “Remember how you were working on your blocks and you didn’t want your cousin to join? Sometimes we want to play by ourselves or don’t want to talk to other people.”
Help him understand that he might have been in those other kids’ shoes. A child rejected by peers won’t feel so terrible when he realizes he can relate as well.
3. 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 does more harm than good.
Many kids aren’t as aware about peer rejection as you and I are. It may not be a big deal to them as it can be for us, and they’re often able to move on without feeling offended.
But when we step in too quickly or too often, they might wonder whether something is wrong and needs more attention. “Why is mom making such a big deal about this? They didn’t want to play with me right now, 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 them, these situations may not be such a big deal. Only when we step in are they made more aware of it.
4. Be matter-of-fact
Sometimes the best we can do is to state the fact and move on. “He 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 her feelings, then encourage her to forge ahead. Analyzing the situation too much or making a big deal can make her feel like there’s more to this than she knows.
And give other kids the benefit of the doubt. One time, a parent kept reining in her child, assuming that my kids would find her behavior strange. But it wasn’t necessary—my kids weren’t fazed at all, and welcomed her goofy behavior.
5. Observe your child playing with others
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Observe your child and his difficulties. Does he do better with big groups or small groups? How does he approach other kids? How can you help him better make friends?
Based on those questions and answers, you can then decide which situations are conducive for him. If he does better with smaller groups, a play date with one or two other kids could be good practice. If he approaches other kids in an aggressive behavior, you might show him to better talk to them.
And check out Elmore by Holly Hobbie, a wonderful book about making friends:
6. Give your child social tools and tips
It’s happening again and again. Your child goes the playground, approaches several kids, only to be rejected. Whether she’s hurt or unfazed, you know there’s a better way she could approach other kids.
Help her better tackle social situations (especially at the playground) with these tips:
- Remind her to approach kids gently. Social kids are so friendly that they forget or don’t realize that they can appear aggressive. People—even kids—appreciate personal space and like gentle approaches. Remind her that others need time and space to make friends.
- Encourage parallel play. Many young kids still practice parallel play, playing side-by-side doing the same activity. For instance, two kids could be shoveling their own buckets next to each other, instead of together into 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 her recognize bullying behavior. Kids can be oblivious to bullying behavior, or crave attention or company so much they’ll put up with mean kids. 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. 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.
- Help your child recognize “stop” signals. Sometimes kids do give signals—but your child doesn’t notice them. They’re left with no choice but to blatantly tell her, “Go away” or “I don’t want to play with you.” Teach her those signals. Maybe the other child looks or walks away, or doesn’t want to play what she suggested. You can also let her know that she can ask the other kids what they would like to do.
7. 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 might be cousins, your friends’ kids, or even kids from a mom group. Being with the same group of kids can help your child practice social skills and feel less rejected.
Surround your child with younger kids as well. Older kids tend to reject younger kids, but introducing him to younger kids can boost his confidence. Younger kids are more likely to look up to him and want to play.
8. Help build your child’s confidence
Is your child inviting peer rejection?
An empowering skill to teach kids is resilience, or the ability to cope with challenges. Help her find ways to manage 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 and empowered. She doesn’t need to tolerate mean kids and can do something about it.
No one wants to see her child rejected by peers, especially when she’s trying so much to be a good friend to others. We can’t—and shouldn’t—save them from heartache, but we can help them cope with rejection.
Show empathy for her feelings and teach her to be empathetic too 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 the tools to handle peer rejection, and create a conducive environment through play dates or smaller groups.
As parents, we feel so helpless watching our kids experience rejection of any kind. 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:
- How to Stop Preschool Behavior Problems
- How to Teach Your Child to Be Assertive
- Why Kids Shouldn’t Be Forced to Share (And What to Do Instead)
- How to Teach Toddlers to Share
- How to Handle Children’s Social Conflicts
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