A friend of mine recently told me about this conversation with her son:
Son: “Mom, you have to get to know people before you can be friends.”
Mom: “Hmmm… that makes a lot of sense.”
Son: “And sometimes, when you do something gross, people decide right away they don’t like you, and they don’t take the time to get to know you.”
Mom: “Oh… is this a problem you’ve had?”
Mom: “What are you going to do?”
Son: “I’m going to try not to be gross.”
No child deserves to be rejected. We can and should encourage children to be kind and tolerant of others, and cruelty is never acceptable. However, some children regularly act in ways that make it hard for other kids to accept them. Helping children with off-putting behaviors to recognize and change these (if possible) can make it less likely that they will be rejected.
Trying not to be gross is a good start.
Research About Rejected Children
Rejected children are those who are disliked by many of their peers and liked by few. Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys, for instance, are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative.
However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13 to 20 percent are shy and withdrawn. Still others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behavior is off-putting to peers.
Girls are less likely than boys to be physically aggressive. Compared to their peers, disliked girls tend to be more bossy, to express more negative emotions, to talk more about breaking rules, and to have poorer conflict resolution skills.
Although negative behaviors clearly can lead to rejection, the reverse is also sometimes true: Being rejected can bring out the worst in kids, which leads to more rejection.
Common Behaviors That Push Away Friends
Almost every child experiences the pain of being excluded at some point, but if your child is going through a particularly difficult period of struggling to get along with peers, you may want to consider whether your child might be doing something to contribute to the problems. If you’re not sure, your child’s teacher may have some useful observations. Here are some common off-putting behaviors and alternatives:
1. Trying (unsuccessfully) to be funny.
Everyone enjoys being around people with a great sense of humor. However, humor requires a sophisticated understanding of both expectations and how to violate those expectations without going too far. When attempts at humor are even a little bit “off,” they’re not funny; they’re annoying.
Children who struggle socially are rarely able to master the subtleties of humor. They’re better off trying to kind, rather than funny. You may want to help your child brainstorm possible acts of kindness to try at school. (If necessary, warn your child against giving away money or possessions. Peers might accept these gifts, but they’ll respect your child less. True friends can’t be bought.) Writing down acts of kindness or reporting them at dinnertime or bedtime can also help your child feel good about him- or herself.
2. Ignoring “stop” signals.
Everyone makes social mistakes. This is usually no big deal, as long as we pick up on social cues and recognize that we need to stop. Children who struggle socially are often oblivious to others’ reactions, which can lead them to persist in doing unwanted or inappropriate behaviors. For instance, they may continue lecturing about a topic long after their listeners have lost interest, or they may repeatedly kick a classmate’s chair after they’ve been asked to stop. This can be infuriating for peers.
You may need to help your child recognize “stop” signals. These include nonverbal behaviors such as looking away (or even walking away!) as well as statements such as “Quit it!” or “You’re being annoying!” See if your child can make a list of “stop” signals. You may also need to help your child come up with a plan for stopping. This might involve physically moving farther away, saying something like, “Well, that’s enough of that” or asking, “What would you like to do?”
3. Being a poor sport.
Playing games is a big part of social interaction for elementary school children. Children who struggle socially often have a hard time coping with winning and losing. They may argue, cheat, shove, or become very upset if things don’t go their way. This spoils the fun for other kids.
If your child struggles in this area, you may want to build up your child’s tolerance for losing at home. Start with cooperative games or “beat your own record” contests, and work your way up to brief and then longer competitive games. Emphasize that winning and losing are temporary. Explain to your child that we can’t always win the game, but we can always “win the fun” by enjoying the company of playmates.
Children who struggle socially sometimes think that they need to impress their peers in order to draw friends to them like a magnet draws steel. This never works. Rather than trying to impress peers—which implies to other children, “I’m better than you!”—they should try to look for common ground.
Kids make friends by doing things together. Children are also more attracted to other children whom they perceive as similar to themselves. Help your child figure out some ways to discover or create things in common with peers. This could mean signing up for an after-school activity, inviting a potential friend to a fun outing (e.g., bowling, a movie), or observing or asking questions to identify shared interests with classmates.
Hope for Rejected Children
Reputations die hard, so helping your child learn to avoid off-putting behaviors won’t instantly lead to peer acceptance. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Gerbert Haselager and his colleagues found encouraging results in a study of boys who were rejected by their peers in kindergarten: They followed these boys for five years, and by the end of elementary school, the majority of the initially peer-rejected boys who did not sustain a high level of aggression were no longer rejected. Change is definitely possible, but sometimes it takes awhile.
Your child may find it easier to gain acceptance one-on-one rather than in a group setting. Having even one mutual close friend can go a long towards taking the sting out of rejection by others.
Did you have an experience of being rejected as a child? Were you able to move past it somehow?
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Haselager, G. J. T., Cillessen, A. H. N., Van Lieshout, C. F. M. Riksen-Walrave, J. M. A., & Hartup, W. W. (2002). Heterogeneity among peer-rejected boys across middle childhood: developmental pathways of social behavior. Developmental Psychology, 38, 446-456.
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