By Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
This year, my 8-year-old daughter, Skylar, came home from a friend’s birthday party with an expression I had never seen, especially after what should have been a joyous occasion. This was a friend who had hugged her when they toured their 3rd grade classrooms right before the school year started. Yet, just a few weeks later, it became evident that this friend was part of a clique to which my daughter did not belong.
When Skylar was ready to disclose what happened at the party, she told me that nobody had wanted to play with her. Girls she had previously enjoyed interacting with suddenly ignored her. When she approached one child and asked her to play, the child said she preferred to be alone, only to play with different children a few minutes later. In the days and weeks following the party, more stories rolled out. Like the girl on the bus who told her they were “frenemies,” and another peer who showed a predilection for eye-rolling, even in response to my daughter offering her kind words. It is hard to call someone out on eye rolling or on treating you like a friend one day and shunning you the next. Still, it’s painful.
The invisible burn caused by social exclusion is a pain that is all too familiar to me, given that I was left out in similar ways when I was Skylar’s age and the memories are still fresh, 31 years later. When I hear about these incidents, my years of experience counseling youth facing all kinds of difficult social situations seem to fly out the window.
The psychological consequences of social exclusion are well documented in research literature and confirmed by clinical experience. Among these effects are lowered self-esteem and increased feelings of resentment. There have also been recent commentaries about the rise of social exclusion in modern society, such as a November 2022 article in the Atlantic about the psychology of the silent treatment. This should assure people that social exclusion is not all in their head and they are not alone in struggling with the effects of it.
At the same time, when the pain from exclusion is unusually sharp, we need to treat what the experts call rejection sensitivity, or a tendency to perceive being rejected and feel distressed about it. While rejection sensitivity is commonly seen in certain mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders, anyone can show this trait to some extent.
For us rejection-sensitive folks, not belonging can feel like not existing, and the joy that comes with belonging is tarnished by a pervasive fear of being left out, if not now then sometime in the future. Exclusion is seen as a constant threat that seems to pop up everywhere. This might lead children to avoid social interaction, including opportunities to make healthier friendships. Children who are excluded might also respond by purposefully excluding or bullying other children to feel more valued among their peers.
To effectively mitigate the impact of social exclusion, we need to help children learn how to respond to it productively, and to guide them in forming healthier perceptions of their peer interactions.
Of course, you want to encourage your child to solve problems for themselves, but that doesn’t always mean being uninvolved. If you do feel the need to become involved, here are some suggestions for doing so productively.
Be Careful How You React
As many parents realize at some point, their reactions to what their children tell them matter, a lot. On one hand, parents who were excluded themselves might have more empathy for their child going through a similar experience. However, this might mean that hearing about your child’s experience brings up uncomfortable memories. Just as the rejection sensitive individual finds themselves on the lookout for further evidence of being excluded, when they become parents, they might carry their exclusion radar into their child’s social world. That is, they might become hyper-sensitive to any signs of their child being excluded and either be too confrontational with other parents, or unintentionally convey to their child that these experiences are more threatening to self-esteem than they need to be.
When my daughter talked about being excluded by her peers, I tried to maintain a supportive front. However, my knee-jerk reaction went in the opposite direction, as I was overcome by tension. If Skylar did not pick up on my rigid stature, she must have caught on to my high state of alertness when I peppered her with questions, such as, “Did you try playing with the other kids?” “How do you know they did not want to play with you?” “What did they say and do, and how did you respond?” and “Did you try playing with different kids when some of them did not want to play with you?” I scrambled to find a solution right away, whether it would be a teaching moment for a social skill that would help her be more accepted, or telling her to stay away from toxic people, or getting on the phone to confront the parent.
Actually, I have resorted to one or two of these solutions over time and I have learned that there is no “right” way. Rather, an effective solution depends on the context of the situation, and as I have discussed in other blog posts and resources on my website, MoodSmoothie, it pays to have a toolbox of strategies. The key is that it takes time. An effective solution might be obscured if you demand an immediate answer.
In this case, Skylar had made reasonable and multiple attempts to play with different children at the party, but unfortunately the clique mentality prevailed. My emotional response was to tell the parents how much their child’s party upset my daughter, but intellectually I knew this would not be effective because I had not witnessed the behavior, Skylar had not been physically or verbally bullied, and the parents would likely react defensively. Exasperated, I exclaimed that maybe she should not go to parties at this child’s house moving forward. This was of course an “open mouth, insert foot moment,” as Skylar’s response was to feel more defeated and to want to stop talking about it.
My emotional response to this situation was driven by a parental instinct to protect. I am all too aware of how earlier life experiences of being excluded continue to affect me, and I wanted to save her from the same fate. Although I have told Skylar that these situations do not mean there is anything wrong with her, I suspect that my response implicitly conveyed the message that social exclusion is something to be prevented at all costs, including potentially enjoying a future party. In contrast, the message children need to learn is that they are capable of working through challenges like the one Skylar faced. Doing so will help them practice skills to navigate similar situations later in life.
Validate Your Child’s Emotions
Your child might feel reluctant to talk about being left out. If they respond negatively to your attempts to talk to them, allow them space and time, and revisit the subject later. Unless you suspect your child is at risk of being harmed, letting the matter go is likely better for your parent-child bond than forcing the issue. Assure them that you are there to listen if and when they are ready.
When your child is ready to talk, calmly ask them to describe what happened. You might even have them act out the scene. Ask them to share what thoughts and emotions came up for them when the situation was occurring. Share similar stories that you encountered either when you were a child or more recently, or stories you heard from others. These efforts will help your child feel less alone.
The key to validating your child’s emotions is to make it clear that there are no wrong feelings. Even if you suspect that your child misread a situation, such as thinking someone did not want to play with them when they preferred a different game, you can say, “It’s a bummer when your friends don’t want to play with you.”
Talk to Your Child About Why Social Exclusion Happens
The next step is to normalize the experience. By normalize, I do not mean condoning it or invalidating your child’s pain. Rather, remind them that they are in good company if they have had an exclusion experience. This will help reduce the isolation and shame that can accompany such experiences.
One mistake I made earlier in my career was telling clients that everybody likes them, which is akin to the fallacy fed to many elementary school students that, “We are all friends in this class.” In reality, the opposite lesson is what children need to learn: It is pretty much a certainty that not everybody will want to be your friend or interact with you.
At some point in the conversation, ask your child why they think they were excluded. If your interpretation of their story is in line with what they say, tell them in a reassuring way, emphasizing that you are going to work together to come up with solutions. However, always emphasize that no one ever really knows what motivates other people to do what they do. Try to keep an open mind, but if your interpretation differs, tell them you would like to share your perspective based on similar events that you have seen or that have happened to you. If your child balks at your interpretation, remain calm and emphasize that it is OK to have different opinions, that you are sharing what you have learned from your experiences, but that all people are different. This might be another moment when dropping the topic for the time being is the way to go. You want to show your interest and concern without making too big of a deal out of it.
Your thoughts about the narrative your child shared might lead you to believe in one or more possible reasons they were left out. The reason might be something as serious as racism or religious discrimination, or it might be something as frivolous as not having the trendiest wardrobe. There might also be an underlying psychological explanation, including behaviors and traits shown by your child, such as social skills difficulties or being too rigid about what to play. Alternatively, the psychological factor might be on the other child’s side. For example, the child might feel better about themselves by showing superiority over or controlling another child. This might prompt you to talk to your child more about these other issues. Most importantly, though, you want to convey the message that the reason they were excluded is not because of any inherent flaw in your child as a person.
Soon after Skylar told me about her experience at the birthday party, I was shocked to witness her and a close friend of hers exclude another child. I pulled Skylar aside at an opportune time, made her aware that she was excluding the other child, and reminded her of how upset she had felt when she had been the target of this behavior. Eventually, Skylar became good friends with the child she had excluded.
Talk to Your Child About Coping Skills
Your next step will be to provide your child specific tools for coping with social exclusion. Here are some points to consider:
Before teaching your child how to hope with being left out, ask them to come up with their own solutions. Specifically, you might say, “What would you like to do the next time this happens?” Or you can ask them to reflect on how they handled the situation they told you about, and if they would have done anything differently. If your child’s proposed solution is clearly unwise, ask them what they think the probable outcome would be. For example, punching your classmate is not likely to get them to play with you, but it is very likely to get you in trouble.
Emphasize that your child has positive qualities other children will appreciate even if not every child values them. Not every child has to, but some will. Then, work together to make a list of your child’s positive qualities, particularly qualities over which they have some level of control. For example, highlighting how kind they are will be more effective than telling them they are good looking. Also, be on the lookout for your child assuming they are being excluded when that is not the case. It is important to nip this unhelpful way of thinking in the bud. Gently encourage them to consider other reasons for the behavior they observed.
It might also be helpful to identify social skills difficulties that are interfering with your child’s peer interactions, such as insisting on playing their way with little flexibility, pushing themselves into a group, or being too timid about showing an interest in what others are playing. Find a calm moment to introduce more effective skills, framing them as special strategies to help them feel more confident about trying to play with other kids at school.
Seek Support from Others
Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your child’s teacher or school counselor about what your child is experiencing. This is not about blaming the other child. Rather, frame it as wanting support for helping your child feel better adjusted to the school community.
You might also want to seek support from the parent of the child that excluded yours. Many parents might wonder if they should bring up the topic with the other parent. Once again, whether you do this depends on the context. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by talking to the parent. In most cases, you will simply want to ask the parent if your child did something wrong, because you heard that their child was unhappy with yours. This reduces the chance that the other parent will react defensively. As an example, there was one occasion when Skylar had a hard time accepting that one of her friends wanted to play with different children, and consequently, she tried to force the child to play with her. It was only through speaking with the child’s parent that I learned the other side. From that point forward, that parent and I had a mutual agreement to talk to our children about respecting each other.
Talk to Your Child About Other Opportunities
You might want to explain to your child that sometimes when kids don’t play with other kids, it is because they are trying to be part of some in-group and they think that playing with anyone who is not in that group will lessen their chances of membership. Because of that, one solution is to help your child find a group with similar interests. That’s one of the reasons why we enroll kids in extra-curriculars—to help them mingle with like-minded peers.
Ask your child if they have any interests or skills that they’d like to share with other groups. Most parents already know their children’s strengths, and you might be able to remind them about those qualities. You could also remind them that volunteer opportunities are especially helpful for finding like-minded people, as well as feeling good about helping others.
Talk to Your Child About Helping Others Who Are Being Excluded
Teach your child how to identify other children who are being excluded and give them the tools and encouragement to help. Reaching out to other children who are experiencing the same pain they experienced will help your child feel empowered, in contrast to the helplessness they felt when they were excluded.
Conclusion: A Delicate Balance
Helping your child cope with being left out is no small task. It requires a delicate balance of intervening with guidance, and perhaps some match making skills, but at the same time allowing your child to solve problems on their own. While social exclusion feels bad for both children and their parents, it is possible to turn the experience into a learning opportunity by engaging your child in constructive conversations. Empowering your child with skills for coping with social exclusion and for helping others who are also being excluded will have far-reaching impacts on self-esteem and confidence.
Austin, D. (2021 March 26). What you’re saying when you give someone the silent treatment.
Lord, K.A., Liverant, G., Stewart, J.G., Hayes-Skelton, S.A., Suvak, M.K (2022).
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Sommer, K.L., Williams, K.D., Ciarocco, N.J., & Baumeister, R. (2001). When silence
speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal
consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology.