Following on the theme of rejection from last week’s topic I don’t love you anymore, this week’s discussion is about social exclusion and the painful ways preschoolers reject each other during play. If you have ever seen a 4 year old cut a friend out of a game you will know what I mean when I say it is painful to watch. It is not only hard to see the rejected child stand there in bemusement but it also opens up all of those bad memories for the onlooker of feeling left out as a kid on the playground. A natural impulse is to want to correct the rejecting child for their antisocial behavior. The questions that come up for many parents are how do I best handle this situation? How do I create an environment where this doesn’t happen? How do I protect my child from bullies? How do I teach my child that being mean is not ok?
In Naomi I. Eisenberger’s research paper Why Rejection Hurts: What Social Neuroscience Has Revealed About the Brain’s Response to Social Rejection she describes how social rejection triggers much the same neural pathways as physical pain. It turns out that a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm, as far as the brain is concerned. The reason we are wired this way is to remind us that we need to belong to a social group for our survival. In the days of the hunter-gatherers a person left out on their own would not survive long, so the feeling of pain reminded us to adapt to the group to stay alive.
In todays world where are physical survival is not so at risk it brings up the question of whether some social rejection is actually valuable in learning how to survive in a highly competitive world where rejection happens all the time. In Vivian G. Paley’s book You Cant Say You Cant Play, she talks about a rule she implemented with her kindergartners that meant they had to include anyone who wanted to play in their game. She had seen the same kids excluded over and over again and noticed how damaging it was for them in the long term and how it would leave their spirit crushed. She describes the relief everyone felt after the rule had been implemented and that it was as if the children had been rescued from meanness. Whilst the idea of creating a haven in the classroom where all kids are included sounds comforting I am left wondering if there is value in letting children experience rejection. Perhaps the value is that if they learn to experience rejection and express their frustrations around it they may become empowered to speak up for themselves the next time round. This would of course require an adult to notice they are being rejected and support them through that experience. A concern about the “you can’t say you cant play” rule is what happens once the children leave the nurturing environment of classroom and find themselves in the outside world where rejection happens all the time? With no rules to protect them, will they be left defenseless and without the tools to handle such a blow, or will they have such a high level of self-esteem that they will feel more immune to the attacks of the real world?
These are questions that come up for me all the time as a parent and an educator. I have consistently seen parents become activated when their child is the one rejecting another child and attempt to reason with their child, asking them to be nice or inclusive. What usually ends up happening is that the rejecting child can come to resent the friend for being forced to play when they didn’t want to. Potentially this can lead to inauthentic relationships in the long run where feelings do not get expressed but passive aggressive behavior does. The other problem that arises is that the bond between parent and child can destabilize and a power struggle ensues if the parent forces the child to behave in a way that feels inauthentic.
So how should a parent react when their child rejects a friend? In my experience perhaps the most effective tool a parent can use is to go to the rejected friend and spend the time with them processing their feelings. Not only does this empower the rejected friend to verbalize their feelings, an essential tool for conflict resolution, it also leaves a space for the rejecting child to see by themselves that their action had an impact they may not have anticipated. Most of the time a child who rejects is not trying to be malicious and isn’t intentionally trying to hurt the other person’s feelings. Often they just have a different idea about how they want to play and do not have the tact or social grace to let them down gently. By having the space to see that their friend is upset and receiving attention from an adult their mirror neurons have a chance to fire and empathy can emerge. If on the other hand they are being forced to apologize or play nice their brains will most likely remain in defense mode or shame and the outcome will not have helped them grow in a meaningful way.
Of course we need to teach our children socially acceptable ways to behave towards others but it is the way we teach them that counts. Allowing genuine feelings to emerge and get talked about seems much more practical in the long run.
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit wellbabycenter.org/blog.
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.