Peer relationships are so important, but they don’t always glisten. Through their relationships – the good and the not so good – children will learn many things. It’s where they’ll start to build their expectations about how the world will receive them, what the world will think of them, whether the world is safe, whether people are safe, and how much power they have. It’s also where they will learn that ‘mean for no reason’ is a thing, that sometimes people do things that don’t make sense, that the people who treat them like rock stars are worth holding onto, and that some people don’t deserve to get anywhere near them.
Kids can be gorgeous and compassionate and kind and cruel – and all children will come across plenty of both. Understandably, the playground can feel like the beginning and end of their world. when they are rejected, it can feel as though the world outside their family is made up of people who don’t understand them at all.
It’s so important for our kids to know that for every child who is nasty, there will be plenty more who will adore them for everything they are. It’s a matter of finding their tribe – and they’ll all have one. Sometimes though, finding friends can be harder than it should ever be – through absolutely no fault of their own.
It’s completely understandable that for many children, rejection feels personal. All rejection has the potential to hurt, but when it feels personal it feels especially painful. We can explain, as many parents would, that the reasons they might be excluded will have absolutely nothing to do with them, but kids are curious and clever and their beautifully open minds are looking to understand the world as much as they can. The question then is likely to become, ‘well if they aren’t rejecting me because of me, why are they rejecting me?’
Any information we can give them will help to strengthen them. Thankfully, when it comes to explaining peer rejection, there is recent research that can help.
Let’s talk about the research. So you can talk to them.
Traditionally, research has focussed on the rejected child, and explored why children believe they might be rejected, or why others believe those children are rejected. In a recent study, researchers switched their focus from the rejected child, and asked the rejecters themselves why they didn’t accept some of their peers.
The study involved 853 students, aged 5-7, with a fairly equal inclusion of girls and boys. The children were asked who in their class they like the least, and why. Only 4.5% of children did not name any other children negatively.
The study found three broad reasons that children reject other children. Two of these reasons, as expected, don’t have anything to do with the behaviour or personality of the rejected child. In fact, the researchers note that in other peer groups, the reasons given for rejection could very easily be reasons for acceptance and friendship.
1. Preferences and choices.
The first broad reason for rejection is ‘preference’ and it’s about the way the rejecting child perceives the preferences and choices of the child being rejected. Basically, this involves a child rejecting another child as ‘in’ or ‘out’ based on what that rejected child likes, and the things they like to do.
This type of rejection seems to be driven partly by how much the rejected child represents the norms of the group. It has nothing to do with anything inherently unlikeable about the rejected child, just that they are different to the group or to the child who is excluding them, (‘he’s always singing’). In another friendship group, the same behaviour that is rejected might be seen as something wanted or wonderful or charming – something worth embracing.
It’s not surprising that rejection can come down to personal likes and dislikes. We were all born liking different things and that’s a great thing. Otherwise, we’d all be playing the same sport, eating the same food, and driving yellow cars. Diversity is a great thing, unless you’re the only shimmery, glittery one in a world full of matte – then it can feel lonely and isolating – but only until you find other glitterbugs who have been waiting to find someone just like you.
Personal likes and dislikes can be a healthy way to strengthen personal identity, (I’m a dog lover’.) They can also tighten group solidarity, (‘we like hip-hop and magic things’). The downside though, is that when prejudices are shared within a group, it can drive rejection of others outside the group, (‘you‘re not a soccer player like us,’ or, if you’re dealing with the non-shiners, ‘you’re a shiny thing and we don’t like shiny things’.) What this means is that sometimes, children might be driven to reject for no other reason than to strengthen their own sense of belonging within a group. Children consider other children to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ based on that child’s choices or what he or she enjoys (‘he likes cricket’), which in turn consolidates group identity (‘we like playing football’).
When there are no specific likes or preferences that can justify rejection or tighten group belonging, children might base their rejection on social groups (‘she’s a girl’) or on the rejected child doing things that are typical of certain groups (‘he eats Asian stuff’). These are an expression of the stereotypes and prejudices against those who are not like me or us, or who belong to another group, (‘she’s Romanian’, ‘he’s new’).
The second category of rejection is based on unfamiliarity between the rejecting child and the rejected child. It’s driven by a reluctance of the rejecting child to establish new friendships or to discover common ground, (‘she plays the violin, but I don’t play the violin’, or ‘I don’t want to play in the sandpit’.) With this type of rejection, there is a tendency to prefer what is already being done. Again, the rejection has nothing to do with the behaviour of the rejected child.
3. And then there’s the rejection that makes a little more sense.
This type of rejection is tied to the behaviour of the rejected child. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the rejected child has behaved in an antisocial way, but it might. What it often means is that that his or her behaviour has been interpreted as a potential threat to the rejecting child or the friendship group. Rejecting children base this type of rejection on the degree to which the behaviour deviates from his or her own social group. Like many adults, it seems that some children tend to base a person’s ‘likeability’ or safety, on the level of similarity between themselves and the other.
The behaviours that seem to bring on rejection, according to the research, include:
behaviours that were perceived as breaching social or school norms, (‘she takes things away,’ or ‘he’s bad at reading’).
behaviours that interfered with or threatened personal to group well-being, (‘she speaks when we’re working’). They are the behaviors that tend to unsettle others, contribute to them feeling angry, uncomfortable or interfere with them getting what they want, (‘he says silly things’, ‘she’s always interrupting’).
bossy behaviours that are seen as attempts to control what’s done, how it’s done (‘he bosses people about,’ ‘she pushes me around’, ‘he acts cocky with me’). They are also the behaviours that are seen by the rejecting child as an attempt to influence others for the ‘bossy’ child’s own advantage, or to strengthen his or her own position or ego at the expense of others.
aggressive behaviours that cause harm or insecurity. They can be verbal or physical, and are seen as being driven by a number of unfriendly intentions:
– to humiliate others or hurt their reputation, (‘she makes fun of everybody).,
– physical aggression to cause physical damage, (‘he hits’, ‘she spits’),
– intimidation through threats or abuse, (‘she treats me badly’, ‘he threatens’).
behaviours which breach social norms and school rules, (‘she steals things,’ ‘he makes the teacher angry’).
behaviours that lack the social skills needed for healthy relationships, (‘he doesn’t leave me anything’, ‘she takes my stuff without asking’).
It’s understandable that kids would not want to be around people who feel bad to be with. They need to be kind, empathic and compassionate, but none of that means embracing bad behavior. Part of teaching our kids to live with strength and self-respect involves teaching them to recognise when a behaviour feels bad, and supporting them when they make the decision to move themselves out of the way of that bad behaviour. The challenge comes in doing this with kindness and grace, and minimising any further breakage that could spill from this.
What kids need to know.
For the rejected child.
Sometimes children might reject other children because of fear – fear of losing their position in a group, fear of having to compete for ‘likeability’ in the friendship or group, and fear of the things that makes them different. This has nothing to do with who the rejected child is. The things that might lead other people to (confusingly) reject a child, will be the reasons other kids think that same child is a little bit of magic with sunshine thrown in. It’s just a matter of finding those people who are their kind of people – and there will be plenty of those. If those people are hard to find in one playground, keep looking, because those people are probably looking for them too.
Acknowledge that it can be frightening to keep reaching out to people, but it’s important not to let the behaviour of one frightened person, or one small-minded group, trick them into believing that there’s anything wrong with them. The truth is, they’re wonderful. They’re interesting, fun, kind and brave. Not everyone will get them, but not everyone has to. There will be so many people who think the things about them that make them different to the pack – or a particular pack – are the very best things about them.
If the rejection has been brought on because of their behaviour, or because they’re still building their toolbox for how to be a good friend, it’s a great opportunity to build their social and emotional intelligence. This is something that builds at different times in different kids, but it can always be nurtured along. See here for how.
For the child who is rejecting.
- Bring their fears into the open
Sometimes even the wildest and most baffling behaviour has a really good reason for being there. It’s understandable that a newbie to the friendship group might feel a little threatening. If this is the case, bring the fear into the open. Fears can be fierce little punks that sit in the dark like they aren’t there at all, and direct behaviour in ways that cause breakage. It happens in all of us. When the fear is brought out into the open, it loses much of its power to drive poor behaviour and poor choices.
This might have to be done gently. It can be tricky to admit vulnerability. Try, ‘what might happen if you become friends with Maggie?’ or, ‘Are you worried that the other kids might like Maggie more than you? I get that. It can be scary can’t it. I’ve felt like that before. You know the crazy thing is, you’re so wonderful to know, and the people who know you really – really – like you, so it’s what’s more likely to happen is that Maggie would realise how great you are to be friends with and you might become each other’s favourite people,’ … or something like that. Once a fear is validated, it stops having as much power over behaviour. Feeling like you might be replaced is a very valid fear, and one that deserves to be acknowledged and treated with love and gentle words.
- Take this as a gift – a brilliant opportunity to nurture their empathy.
Empathy is something that can be built and strengthened. It’s about seeing things through someone else’s eyes – and from time to time we’ll all have trouble with that. We’re only human. The best way for empathy to be nurtured is through conversation. ‘How do you think Maggie might have felt when you said that?’ ‘What would it be like for you if nobody played with you?’ ‘If you could give Maggie some advice, what would it be?’
- ‘Let’s say you were watching a movie …’
- Highlight the similarities.
- But the most important thing …
And finally …
It’s very likely that during childhood, if a child doesn’t feel the sting or heartache of rejection first-hand, it will happen to someone they care about. What this research tells us is that even though rejection feels personal, it’s often not. For many children, the decision to exclude a playmate from their circle happens when they consider a mismatch between their choices or likes and those of the other child. It can also be done in an attempt to keep their own friendships safe and secure and free from ‘outsiders’.
Whatever the reason, for the child who is rejected, it’s likely to feel personal, confusing and heartbreaking. The more information we can give them to help them make sense of their experience the better. The truth is that rejection is often not personal, but a decision made without thought or consideration, and sometimes in fear. The playground is just a very small part of their world, and outside of that world, there are children – plenty of them – who are waiting to know someone exactly like them. By giving them the information they need to make some sort of sense of their experience, we can help to strengthen them and move them towards the tribe that will love them because of their differences, not despite them.