Throughout the exhausting baby and toddler years, as I lamented over diaper blowouts and potty-training and breastfeeding at 3 a.m., one thing moms of older kids often told me was that it only gets harder. How?, I thought. How in the hell can it possibly be harder when they are finally wiping their own butts and buckling their own seat belts? But, now that my children are older—I’ll have a 10-year-old in a few months—I see what they meant.
Yeah, they play independently now and can often get their own snacks. I sleep through the night most nights and rarely have to wipe a butt that isn’t my own anymore. But, man, as I approach tween years and start contemplating getting my child his first phone, as we talk about bullying and friendship and he retreats to his room to be alone on occasion, I find myself wishing I could jump back in time. Because even though I was sometimes claustrophobic with tiny people crawling all over me, at least I knew where they all were. I usually knew what they were thinking. And I could usually make it better within minutes if something was wrong.
But once they hit 10, 11, 12… we as parents become powerless against the outside world.
So far, when faced with new surroundings, and new groups of kids, mine have found a friend or two. There aren’t tightly, impenetrable circles just yet. My 7-year-old daughter says she has “best friends,” but she plays with a new girl almost every day. Unfortunately, however, I know it won’t be like this a few years from now. By that time, I’ll be watching with a pit in my stomach as she navigates the messy, awkward, and unstable period we call adolescence. The place where the mean girls live.
One of the worst parts of growing up is a cruel trick kids play, known as relational aggression. Very Well Family says this often behind-the-scenes form of bullying includes:
- excluding people from a group
- spreading rumors
- breaking confidences or sharing secrets
- recruiting others to dislike a target
So how do we help them? What do we say, how do we respond, or should we not respond at all when our kids are socially rejected? Very Well Family offers a few tips. First of all, it’s important that parents and kids understand and talk about what it means to be isolated, ostracized, or intentionally ignored and kept out of the circle. Although this doesn’t outwardly look like bullying (pushing kids, calling them names, stealing their lunch money), it’s often just as harmful, if not more.
We know why this is so painful to kids. Loneliness can feel like torture, and children and teens will often do just about anything to gain acceptance into the group—including the bullying of others, even though they may have already been through it themselves. Because the need to be included is just that—a NEED.
“Humans have a fundamental need to belong,” says C. Nathan DeWall, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. “Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships.” And we know that if a need is not being met, there can be disastrous consequences.
The article also suggests that we teach our kids to feel empowered, not victimized. This isolation isn’t necessarily their fault, and there are ways to continue going to school and social events and still feel good about themselves, even if they remain on the outside. In anticipation of “mean girl” drama, I’ve already started to talking to my 7-year-old about kindness, inclusion, and gossip. So far, she says the girls are nice and that everyone has a friend during recess. But I am realistic enough to know that this won’t last.
I talk to her about owning her own sense of pride. I’ve asked her, “What if a girl you’ve been friends with suddenly says, ‘You can’t play with me’ or ignores you?” I’ve told her that it’s normal to feel hurt if this happens, but that this is the time she looks at herself and remembers how amazing she is. I’ve told her that she shouldn’t chase someone who doesn’t want to be her friend, and that it’s that girl’s loss because she (my daughter) is awesome. And that it’s in these moments when she seeks out other kids to play with, who might be kinder. The article states, “Empower your child to move beyond this situation so that it does not define who she is.”
The Very Well Family article also discourages parents from swooping in and trying to fix it, or save the day. This can be detrimental as we need to teach our kids to handle problems on their own. That doesn’t mean we do nothing, but the truth is, we aren’t there during recess, or in the lunch room, or at their lockers before and after school.
We must equip them with proper tools to face their challenges with confidence. We can talk through scenarios of how to face bullies or mean girls and help them figure out what to say and how to act. And we can remind them, over and over, what kindness looks like, and what beautiful and strong people they are, even if a few kids don’t see it.
We must also remind our kids that this social circle that’s ostracizing them isn’t the only game in town. They can enroll in other activities where they may make new friends. Can they get more involved at church? How about Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts? Or a drama club? Or science camp? Sometimes all it takes is one friend to make our kids feel like they belong.
Also, the article suggests that if our kids are truly struggling, we as parents should not be afraid to seek outside help. A counselor can aid our children in self-esteem and conflict management skills, and therapists often will use psychotherapy to help children facing social isolation. Mentalhelp.net says that Psychotherapy focuses on recovering from the damaging effects of bullying and “includes learning that we are not at fault.”
All in all, the most important thing to remember, according to Very Well Family, is to “be careful not to minimize how your child is feeling. Listen and empathize with what she has to say. You don’t want to be flippant and make the situation worse. Instead, offer patience, encouragement and unconditional love.”
We all know what it feels like to be rejected. It’s a part of life, and likely something that will happen to our kids again at some point in their lives—maybe next week, maybe in 10 years. It’s our job to make sure they can stand tall, look rejection in the face, and say “You don’t define me. I am stronger than you.”