One of the toughest situations to deal with as a parent can be when one of our children or teenagers feels excluded by one or more peers at school. It can bring up a whole litany of feelings and emotions, both for our son or daughter, as well as for us! Anger, frustration, helplessness, and rejection are four that are very common to experience at these times, and certainly appear in my practice space on an almost daily basis.
When our own needs for connection and belonging are threatened, our world can quickly appear to become a cold, unforgiving place for a time. It triggers powerful emotions that as parents, we often want to take action on. This is a shift from previous generations, I would suggest, as during the eighties and earlier an approach of “boys will be boys” was far more prevalent. Parents and to some extent teachers would be much more prepared to let social difficulties faced by children work themselves out, with a belief that minimal intervention from adults was often appropriate. However, today we look at such situations much differently, and parents tend to be much more supportive of contacting schools and teachers directly and immediately. We are fearful of bullying situations arising, and ready to take action!
There is an important complication that can arise, however, that we need to be aware of in supporting young people through feeling rejected at times. We focus on that which we have no control over, and overlook that which we can control. In other words, we cannot change the behavior of others, including that girl in our daughter’s grade 5 class who says nasty things and has little need for her presence. As frustrating as it is, we really can’t change much about that other girl’s behavior and commentary choices, even if the teacher and other parents were to become involved. She potentially has her own difficulties and hurts in her own life, which may tell us why she chooses certain unhealthy responses towards our daughter, but this approach very seldom brings a sustained solution on its own.
Far more important and effective is to engage your son or daughter about what might be occurring at school. To be fair, this is sometimes easier said than done, as teenagers especially can be hesitant to share about peer challenges with their parents or guardians. Nonetheless, having a dialogue about what is occurring can create an opportunity to set free the hurt and frustration that has built up inside, and provide a chance to build one’s own skill set in working through these tough situations. Here is a quick sample dialogue:
Dad (D): I’m noticing you just don’t seem like yourself today. Have you noticed the same thing?
Daughter (G): I guess.
D: What do you think might be making you seem so down?
D: Hmm, okay. So your friends are all still treating you well at school, right?
G: Well, not exactly. Mia hates me.
D: What’s happening with Mia?
G: When we’re out at recess she tells me to go away, and that I’m too slow to play soccer with everyone.
D: What are you feeling when she says that?
G: Mad, sad, and I feel like crying.
D: So do you think she’s right?
G: No! She just doesn’t give me a chance for some reason. But I still want to play.
D: So if she isn’t right, but you still like playing soccer, tell me what choices you see you have right now.
This dialogue would go on, but the father is doing something very important here. He is being fully present with her, hearing her without judgment or coming up with a “quick-fix” solution, and encouraging her to express herself while also coming up with a solution that fits how she is feeling. In essence, he is empowering her to look at what she can control in this situation, and supporting her to develop and access her own skill set. It is in these moments, when healthy connection is in place, that real help for difficult scenarios at school can be most effectively addressed. It may not result in a quick-fix, but it might begin a process that allows your child or teen to grow naturally as he or she learns to find their way in the world.