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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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