Playground Politics – What Drives Peer Rejection?

Playground Politics – What Drives Peer Rejection?

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’).

2.  Unfamiliarity.

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 one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, which is critical to success in work, love and life. Mean behaviour (when it’s unprovoked) generally means a lack of empathy. If you’ve discovered your little person is being a mean person, take it as a gift. It’s a prime opportunity to nurture their emotional intelligence. None of us were born with empathy. It’s something that develops over time. Some kids will be naturally more empathic than others, but all kids have different strengths.

    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 …’

    A less direct, and perhaps less threatening way is to ask them to describe the situation to you as though they were watching a movie. ‘Tell me about the conversation you had with Maggie as though you were watching someone else have it. Let’s use different names.’ This will open the way for you to start positioning them in a way for them to start taking on a different view. ‘What do you think that felt like for (both people)?’ ‘Might there be a better way to do that?’ ‘They both probably had a really good reason for doing what they did – what do you think it was.’ 

  • Highlight the similarities.

    It seems clear from the research that a lot of rejection is based on perceived differences between the rejecting child and the child they are excluding. Ask them to chat to you about the similarities. It might also be worth exploring the meaning, if any, that is being put on those differences. ‘It sounds like it’s important to you that Maggie doesn’t play soccer/ eats Asian food/ plays the violin’. Can you help me understand that a little better?’

  • But the most important thing …

    As with any sensitive conversation we have with our kiddos, it’s really important that they feel safe enough to be honest and open, and that’s they’ll be free from judgement or criticism. It doesn’t mean you won’t have words of judgement or criticism springing to life inside you, just that you won’t let them see it. When they feel safe, they’re more likely open their hearts and their minds to your influence. The truth is, as baffling and as upsetting as their behaviour might seem to you, to them it makes sense. That doesn’t mean there’s anything broken, just that there are some pieces that need adding, reworking or gentle shaping. ‘You’re not in trouble at all. I can see it makes sense to you not to be her friend and I just want to understand it through your eyes.’ 

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. 

14 Comments

Louise

Oh my goodness this makes so much sense, thank you. The paragraph starting “Acknowledge that it can be frightening to keep reaching out to people” is exactly what I need to convey to my 9 year old son. Also the idea of finding your ‘tribe’. Thank you, this is so encouraging.

Reply
Carol

I don’t find this paper helpful. It seems to address a pretty homogenous environment in which kids’ idiosyncacies are developed in the playground and every parent wants to reform the negative perceptions and behaviours of their offspring. It seems to imply that exclusion, prejudice and downright bullying are to be embraced as character-building by the persecuted and the persecutors are simply to be understood. Shouldn’t all kids have the right to flourish? Any kids and their parents who believe that this right is only for the chosen few and therefore with impunity inflict misery on others should also be made to understand the consequences of such behaviour even if it means taking legal action. This also what happens in adult life!

Reply
Karen Young

Carol there is absolutely NOTHING in this article that suggests exclusion, prejudice and bullying are to be embraced as character building! The point of this article is reporting on research that has looked at different things that drive exclusion and bullying. At no time is there the suggestion that this makes that behaviour acceptable. By understanding what might be driving a behaviour, we have more capacity to respond to that behaviour in a way that is effective and enduring.

Reply
Sher

They left one important thing out – a child who is shy or quiet is often left out of groups. Unfortunately trying to make the child more of an extrovert often makes them feel like they are defective.

Reply
Rockman

Even as kids we some to include and exclude people based on what’s important to us. As an adult, you might see a kid getting rejected because he has the wrong favorite color and things it’s ridiculous, but to kids that’s serious business.

It’s the same thing when we grow up. Petty beliefs and dispositions make us more inclined to reject others. At the same time though, a life without rejection would leave someone weak and vulnerable when it inevitably happens someday.

Reply
Patricia

I was rejected so often as a child because we moved so much I never got past the first stage the fat new girl. This rejection has set me up for a life of failure and the ability to connect with others. I wish my parents had this knowledge when I was little. I believe I would have been a different person. Great information. Thank you

Reply
Karen Young

Patricia I’m so pleased the information was helpful for you. It’s never too late to hear the information you needed to hear as a child.

Reply
Anne

Thank you for sharing your knowledge & insight but also equally important, detailed strategies that parents can use to help us develop ourselves & our children.

Reply
Amy

What a timely article. I read this within days of my son experiencing a hard time fitting in at his new school. THANK YOU! I can’t wait to use this information to help him make friends.

Reply
Karen Young

It can be so tough settling in to a new school can’t it! It sounds as though your son is in wonderful hands. I hope the information is able to help him settle in at school.

Reply
Jean Tracy

Another great article, Karen. I was especially interested in the first and second reasons – preferences and choices and unfamiliarity. Thanks for bringing us this research.

Reply
Mary

Excellent and informative. I am a grandma with a 7-year-old grandson who has been bullied since kindergarten. Your articles give me much to discuss with him. Thank you.

Reply
Karen Young

Mary you’re very welcome. I’m pleased the articles are able to give you what you need to help guide your grandson. He’s lucky to have you.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

Pin It on Pinterest