Approximately 10-13% of school-aged children in the United States experience rejection by their peers. Children who feel rejected may have a higher risk of decreased academic performance, experiencing bullying, or becoming bullies themselves. They can also have higher chances of developing mental health issues including depression and anxiety, behavior problems, and isolation (Nixon, 2010).
The ‘I Am’ Message
Children perceive the world differently than adults. As children interact in social settings, they receive messages about themselves and who they are. For example, if a child gets a B on a test and their parents praise their hard work and good grade, the child might receive the message, “I am smart,” “I am capable,” or “I am loved.” If the parents respond by asking why they didn’t get an A and expressing disappointment, the child might receive the message, “I am stupid,” “I am unworthy,” or “I am a bad person.”
The “I am” message a child receives might seem extreme for the situation, but in reality, children learn about who they are through interactions with parents, primarily, and peers, secondarily.
When ‘I Am’ Messages Grow Up
Many “I am” messages are carried into teenage years and adulthood, where they affect how a person relates to others at work and in relationships. “I am” messages can also influence behavior and are often reinforced by continued experiences and interactions with others. For example, a teen who received the message “I am unworthy” as a child might stay in an abusive relationship longer than someone who received the message “I am worthy,” because deep within them exists the belief that they are unworthy and do not deserve more respect or better treatment. Being mistreated by their partner reinforces the negative “I am” message that they are not worthy. This can easily become a cycle and develop into a pattern for adult relationships as well.
There is good news for primary caregivers: The parent-child relationship is often the most influential in a child’s life. This means you, as a parent, have the power to help your child. When your child is rejected by peers, remember that your relationship and interactions with them likely have a greater impact than their relationships with peers, because you are their primary caregiver.
When your child is rejected by peers, remember that your relationship and interactions with them likely have a greater impact than their relationships with peers, because you are their primary caregiver.
Tips for Helping Kids Process Rejection
How do you help your child deal with peer rejection? Below are a few things you, as a parent or guardian, can do to help your child when they are rejected by their peers.
- Create a safe space: If your child talks to you about being rejected by their peers, listen to their story without judging or shaming them for not standing up for themselves. If your child does not talk to you about being rejected, but you have noticed they are having a difficult time interacting positively with peers, talk to them about it when they are in a neutral mood. Let them know what you notice, focusing on your observations rather than your feelings, and provide space for them to share their perspective.
- Identify the “I am” message: Make note of the “I am” message your child has received and help them differentiate who they are (“I am”) from how they feel (“I feel”). Help them gauge their feelings by reflecting on the story they tell and their facial expressions and body language. When you help your child notice how they feel, they will be able to separate their negative feelings from who they are.
- Empower them: Don’t rush to solve problems for your child (even though it might be tempting to do so). Empower them by allowing them to sort through different ideas about how to respond to peer rejection. Value their ideas and ask if they need you to support them in any way. Before you make the teacher aware of the situation, talk to your child about it and hear their perspective on that decision; they may have valid reasons for not involving the teacher.
- Help them connect: Remind them it is impossible to get along with everyone, but people with whom we have a lot in common can be good friends. Help your child identify their likes and dislikes and identify peers who have the same interests. Talk to your child about how to use common interests to approach peers.
- Contact a therapist: If you have tried to help your child but would like more guidance on how to best support them, contact a therapist in your area. Parenting doesn’t come with instructions and clear-cut solutions, so don’t be ashamed to reach out for support. A therapist can be a good option for your child, since they are a neutral person your child can talk to without worrying about how it could impact them in school or at home. One good option is a play therapist, because they can teach your child social skills and coping strategies through play. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy might also be a good option if your child continues to hold on to negative “I am” messages.
Remember: you have the power to help your child, and your relationship with them is the most influential. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to reach out for support. Everyone can use a little help sometimes.
- McKown, C., Gumbiner, L. M., Russo, N. M., & Lipton, M. (2009). Social-emotional learning skill, self-regulation, and social competence in typically developing and clinic-referred children. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 38(6), 858-871. doi: 10.1080/15374410903258934
- Nixon, R. (2010, February 2). Studies reveal why kids get bullied and rejected. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/6032-studies-reveal-kids-bullied-rejected.html
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