Whether you wore the coveted Prom Queen crown (back in the ’80s or ’90s, of course) or reigned superior in the role of wallflower, chances are you have felt the blow of being burned, hurt or rejected by fellow classmates and friends at least once (more likely, a dozen times) as a child or teenager.
According to clinical psychologist Alana G. Baum, Ph.D., being rejected is a perfectly normal-albeit difficult and often heartbreaking-experience of growing up. This is fine and good, and it even makes sense from our mature and adult perspective.
But when your child is in the moment and feeling as though her world will never look bright and happy again … well, not so much.
“It’s extremely hard to watch your child suffer or cry into her pillow at night,” says Baum. “It’s our job as parents to bear the pain, but also to put those feelings into perspective. We have to take the long view and have a little faith in the resilience of our kids.”
After all, we know that even though we’d love it to be, life isn’t very fair. There will be exclusions from parties and betrayals by friends; there will be sports teams that your child doesn’t make-even if she deserves to.
Here’s how you can work with your child to make things right when she’s been wronged:
Validate her feelings
You can imagine (or have experienced) it: Your child comes home from school in a stinky mood. You ask her why, and she ignores you at first and then snaps at you. Finally, she admits to having a rotten day because Susie didn’t ask her to the join the slumber party fun for Friday night. You see the pain in her eyes; you too feel a pang of sadness-for her rejection.
This is a pivotal moment, explains Baum. “Usually, if we can manage our own anxiety about these rejections, we can be more helpful to our kids. As tempting as it is to say, ‘Susie isn’t worth it’ or ‘Susie is just jealous and that’s why she didn’t include you,’ avoid this approach. These are not helpful statements because when your child is in pain, saying things like this either makes her feel dismissed or guilty-silly even-about feeling saddened.”
Instead, try to talk through her feelings, helping her to make sense of what she’s experiencing. For example, you could say, “I know you are sad, and I can understand why you would be upset that Susie didn’t include you because you really wanted her to and it would have been a fun party.”
Hug her, hold her and allow her to be sad. Don’t throw her a pity party to replace the slumber party, but do validate her disappointment and hurt.
Teach, rather than preach
Because no child is perfect and you’ve probably witnessed (or overheard) your own child hurting or excluding another child at some point, it’s important to use your child’s feelings of rejection as teachable moments.
“I always tell my kids to treat others as they would like to be treated because what goes around comes around, and in order to be treated with respect and kindness, you need to give it out too,” explains Beth Rosenberg, mom to three kids in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
The next time your son is bummed that he was chosen last for dodgeball, talk with him about another time when he maybe-accidentally or intentionally-made his pal feel left out or unwanted. It’s often most beneficial to see things from the perspective of another when you are in that role.
So while kids will be kids and often do unfriendly things, we can use hard times to encourage awareness.
Follow her lead
When you were pregnant, your doctor likely warned you to avoid stress, saying it’s bad for the baby. (At the time, you probably wondered how the baby would know if you felt anxious.) According to Baum, our children can read our emotions, feelings and perspectives from our faces, as well as our energy and vibe.
“To the extent that they see alarm in our faces, distress, anger or futile attempts to remedy the situation, it can make the situation worse, not better,” he says.
Social worker Laura Heller Gradman, of Chicago, agrees: Parents must be careful to avoid transferring their own feelings of insecurity onto their kids. An overblown reaction can make a small problem seem much bigger, thus making the child feel even worse. Some kids just need a parent to listen. Others want suggestions. Still others want nothing to do with you. Children need to know one thing: that their parents are there for them.
Emily Feldman recently learned that her 7-year-old daughter, Ellie, was not invited to a party, even though the majority of her friends were. When her daughter told Feldman about the exclusion, Feldman was extremely upset that the birthday girl’s mother did not insist she invite Ellie, as they’ve known each other for many years and are in the same class at school. But Ellie seemed unaffected by the rejection. It was, rather, her mom who was hurt the most. Rather than showing her daughter these feelings, she followed Ellie’s lead in assuming a laid-back role regarding the party. In the end, that made for an easier, smoother situation.
But also lead by example
We all know that rejection is not just relegated to childhood. Adults experience it, too, says Gradman. So be sure to deal with your own feelings of, or experiences with, rejection in the right way so your child can learn to do the same.
“Rejection is a part of life,” she says, “and how you learn to deal with it is what builds strength and character.” For this reason, it’s excellent, and beneficial, to share your experiences. Your child will feel better knowing you have been there too-and survived it. It’s perfectly fine to share stories about your own feelings of rejection and how you handled those feelings.
“Your child will feel less isolated, and you will become more related to them,” says Gradman.
Reach out, but know your boundaries
There’s a fine line between being involved and over-involved, mothering vs. smothering. That said, when rejection comes from your child’s friend, it may be helpful to speak with the “rejector’s” parent if you trust that he/she can be an ally in the situation, says Baum.
“Rarely is there one side to your child’s story and getting information from another supportive parent can often help to address the problem.”
Ignoring the issue or allowing your child to work through it alone is not always the answer. Trust your gut and parenting instincts. Baum stresses that while all children suffer rejection and experience normal social pain, chronic rejection puts some children at risk. These children typically have a hard time making and keeping friends, so they are more vulnerable to chronic rejection and feel more isolated when rejection occurs.
In these situations, it is important that parents be honest with themselves about their child’s isolation and loneliness. Often parents feel pained but also helpless to change their child’s predicament, so they don’t act. Or they act out by getting angry with their child for not fitting in. Both the non-response and the blaming are destructive.
Instead, parents of these children need to start having conversations with teachers (who see firsthand what is transpiring) and school staff about making necessary changes.
Amy Gottstein of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood had to advocate for her son recently, calling the teacher after she witnessed him being bullied by another child on the playground.
“Although it was hard to pick up the phone and make the call,” she says, “the end result was a more peaceful, happier school setting for my child. And that is what matters the most.”