Has your child ever felt lonely or left out? Whether it’s a little kid who can’t find a playmate on the playground, or a teen who isn’t getting invited to the social events they want to be a part of, social exclusion can be tough to deal with — for kids and their parents.
In many cases, social exclusion is not exactly bullying (although it could be a part of bullying if done deliberately), but it is a form of negative peer behavior that can be damaging. If your child is the one getting left out, you know how hurtful and discouraging it can feel.
You can’t control your child’s social life or how their peers act around them, but kids who are still learning to make friends and keep friends may benefit from some encouragement and support. Here are some tips on what to say and do when your kid is feeling left out.
Allow them to feel sad or angry
It can be too easy to jump into solutions or overly positive statements like “Cheer up, you’ll find other friends.” First, it’s important to validate your child’s emotions. If they’re feeling sad or angry about being left out or excluded, those are important feelings. You can say:
“I know, it can really hurt your feelings when someone leaves you out of something that you wanted to be a part of. It’s okay to be sad, angry, confused, or just feeling down.
I’m always here for you. We can work through this together. But first, do you want to shoot some hoops/watch a cheesy movie/help me with dinner?”
Build up their confidence and resilience
Being left out a few times or on a regular basis can cause many kids to lose confidence in their social skills and their worthiness as a friend. They might even withdraw and stop trying to be a part of a group, just to avoid further rejection.
Take the time to remind your child of their positive qualities: “Let’s go back and forth and list all the positive things about you that make you great to be around. Whoever comes up with more gets to choose what we watch tonight.”
Also remind them that when other kids are being mean or exclusive, it says a lot more about those other kids than about them: “When people try to keep others out of their group, a lot of the time that means they don’t have confidence in themselves. They’re worried about what other people in their group think about them. It has nothing to do with the person they’re leaving out.”
Stress the fact that social skills can be learned and improved, just like any other set of skills: “Making friends and being a good friend takes a lot of practice, and people mess up all the time. Everyone has something to work on. Even as an adult, I’m still learning!”
If your child seems sensitive to rejection, help them see their feelings as a strength: “Because you’re such a good observer of social situations, and you really understand how it feels to be left out, this experience can help make you a better friend to others in the future. If you see others being excluded, you can reach out to them and show them you care.”
More than anything, getting them involved in something they care about will be the best confidence booster, as well as a way of meeting other people who may “get” them. Brainstorm what sport, group, or volunteer activity they might want to join. You might need to look outside of the school setting to find something they feel comfortable doing.
Come up with tools to help your child cope with social rejection or exclusion. For example, identifying one or two people they can trust as a “touchstone” to check in with during the school day.
“What would you like to do next time this happens to you?
When I’m feeling left out or awkward, it helps me to find something to do with my body, like go for a walk or help out with something that needs to be done. What do you think would help you?
It’s also great to identify someone you trust who you can look out for that day, like a friend from another class that you’ll see at recess. Do you want to make a list of people you can talk to?”
You can encourage kids to make a friendship tree to get a full picture of all of the people who care about them.
When bias is a reason for social exclusion
If you’ve observed a pattern of exclusion (subtle or not so subtle) based on your child’s disability, appearance, race, sexuality, gender, or other family/income factors that they can’t control, you might feel pretty powerless. But know that there are resources and approaches that can help.
First, be sure your child knows that they’ve done nothing wrong: “Sometimes people don’t see us for the great friends we could be because they’re stuck on one little thing. That’s because they’ve been taught that there’s something wrong with being [Black/disabled/non-binary/etc.].
That person will need to learn to open their mind and heart, if they really want to get to know all the wonderful and unique people out here, like us!
I know it can still feel terrible, even if it’s not your fault. Know that I’m always here to listen if you need to vent. We’ll get through this together.”
Seek out peer groups or mentors who can relate to your child’s identity or situation, and encourage them to join more diverse teams and clubs at school or in the community. Reach out to school administrators to see what kind of diversity and inclusion work they are doing with students.
In addition, be on the lookout for books, movies, and role models that lift up your child’s identity or background, and commit to having open conversations about all aspects of their identity and background at home. Even in a hostile environment, your child’s self-confidence can still grow when they have a few people in their corner offering love and support.
Know when to reach out for help
Most kids will feel left out at some point or another. But if the exclusion is a persistent pattern that is causing your child’s mental health to decline, or your child doesn’t feel safe in school or other circles due to bullying, don’t keep these problems to yourself. Be sure to talk to a teacher, school counselor, therapist, or school administrator.
Help them see it in the long term
Kids are usually very invested in the here and now, and that’s why social exclusion can hurt so much. Reassure kids that friendships and social groups naturally shift all the time, and it may not be a bad thing.
Talk about how kids who were considered the opposite of “cool” or “popular” at one point may end up finding their people later in high school, college, or in their career. Sticking with what they love to do and leaning into what makes them unique can often lead to greater social happiness in the future. Tell a story from your childhood or young adulthood, if you have one.
In the meantime, what they need the most is just a couple of friends or adults they can count on. To get through hard times, it helps so much to have someone who gets you — even if it’s your math teacher, your therapist, or your parent.