- Social exclusion is psychologically painful for children and their parents.
- It is important for parents to actively listen to their child, validate their emotions, and normalize the experience of being excluded.
- Children can become more resilient by learning coping and social skills, joining groups they are interested in, and showing empathy for others.
This year, my school-aged daughter came home from a birthday party with an expression I had never seen, especially after what should have been a joyous occasion. She told me that nobody had wanted to play with 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 weeks following the party, more stories rolled out. Like a 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 psychological consequences of social exclusion are well documented in research literature. Among these effects are lowered self-esteem, sadness, and anxiety. When the pain from exclusion is unusually sharp, we treat what the experts call rejection sensitivity, or a tendency to perceive being rejected and feel distressed about it. For rejection-sensitive individuals, exclusion is seen as a threat that seems to pop up everywhere. This might lead children to avoid social interaction, including opportunities to make healthier friendships.
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. Here are some suggestions for getting the conversation started.
Be Careful How You React
When my daughter talked about being excluded, I tried to maintain a supportive front. However, my knee-jerk reaction went in the opposite direction, as I was overcome by tension and the parental instinct to protect. I scrambled to find a solution right away, whether it would be teaching her a social skill that would help her be more accepted, or telling her to stay away from difficult people. My daughter responded to these suggestions by appearing more defeated and saying she wanted to stop talking about it.
An effective solution might be obscured if you demand an immediate answer or quick fix. I suspect that my response conveyed an urgency that implicitly sent the message that social exclusion is something to be feared and avoided. In contrast, the message children need to learn is that they are capable of working through challenges.
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 about it, validate their emotions by making it clear that there are no wrong feelings. For instance, 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.
Talk to Your Child About Coping Skills
Your next step will be to provide your child with specific tools for coping with social exclusion. Here are some points to consider.
- Before teaching your child how to cope 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?”
- Emphasize that your child has positive qualities other children will appreciate even if not every child values them. 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.
- 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.
- Be on the lookout for your child assuming they are being excluded when that is not the case. Ask them to describe what they directly experienced and witnessed, as opposed to what they heard someone said about them. You might even have them act out the scene.
- Another 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.
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.
Levy, S. R., Ayduk, O., & Downey, G. (2001). The role of rejection sensitivity in people's relationships with significant others and valued social groups. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal rejection (pp. 251–289). Oxford University Press.
Sandstrom, M. J., & Zakriski, A. L. (2004). Understanding the experience of peer rejection. In J. B. Kupersmidt & K. A. Dodge (Eds.), Children's peer relations: From development to intervention (pp. 101–118). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10653-006