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. 

15 Comments

Signe

Thank you for this article! My 4 year old just started preschool and just experienced his first rejection. They have assigned seats in class and my son became fast friends with one of the two girls with whom he sits. I was so nervous that he would don’t like it that as soon as he started talking about his friendship with this person I started mentioning her all the time as a way to help him feel good about going to class. “You’re going to get to see Allison!” But then one day she told him during recess that she didn’t want to be his friend anymore. He told me this with big tears rolling down his eyes. I felt such a bad sting of rejection. It felt so awful I couldn’t seem to get over it. He’s so young and so sweet. How could this happen? I am realizing now how much I contributed to the problem by putting so much on this little connection he had. He didn’t need me to do that. I also projected so much of my own fears of not being loved and accepted in social situations too. As much as it is not personal for the kid it is even less so for the parent! I am having to do some untangling so that I can just let him move in and out of these relationships while he learns and grows from them. Thank you for helping me think about it with a little bit of distance. I admit my first reaction was to think that I should call this girl’s parents and see what they had to say about this. Such insanity on my part!!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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