A few weeks ago on a dog walk we came across a little park and my little boy went in. I couldn’t join him because the dog wasn’t allowed, so I watched him venture in alone, knowing he’s the least inclined to push in, or elbow other kids out of the way.
Within two minutes he was out again… A girl had told him it was her turn on the slide (even though he’d been patiently waiting for his turn), a boy told him he couldn’t get on the swing because he was ‘saving it for someone’.
And in the not-yet-post-Covid world-with so many children out of practice with the trials and tribulations of friendships, belonging, managing conflict and rejection-I’m hearing about so many more of these kinds of issues.
Helping kids navigate rejection and friendships is not an easy task at all, and as a parent it can be heartbreaking. It’s one of the HARDEST things about raising children, especially for those of us who are raising just one.
I’d love for this blog to be a ‘Here’s three ways to help’ affair, but unfortunately there’s no silver bullet with this one. A lot of kids’ difficulties with peer relationships is just down to character and personality, whether it’s the ‘bullish’ or the ‘sensitive’ child.
And of course, empathy plays a big part. We try to cultivate empathy in children early, especially embarrassed parents whose child has behaved in a way which others might deem ‘inconsiderate’ or ‘unkind’.
But the truth is, from a neurological perspective, empathy doesn’t start to develop fully until kids are 7 or 8 anyway. And even then, it needs the right environment to grow…. And even then, it takes practice and mastery. It’s not an easily won competence for any of us.
There are tools and techniques you can help your kids to manage friendships, conflict and rejection, but IMO we tend to step straight into this problem-solving territory too quickly.
There’s a bigger picture to think about, and that’s how we respond to these problems, and what our kids learn from that.
What I often hear about, especially from parents; whether their child has being outrightly rejected, is struggling to find their voice, or has difficulties fitting in; is that the distress this causes us-as adults-has a big impact on how we respond.
Because the truth is, many of us have our own version of this experience etched into our childhood memories, and it can make us massively protective…
While we outwardly project the calm and composed grown-up, inside we are roaring; ‘Oi! Did you just hurt my kid’s feelings?!!’
And there’s nothing wrong with that; the love we have for our children is savage! But it doesn’t have to make us tiger-fierce, and a softer perspective can help give children (and ourselves) a softer landing…
Don’t Wage War…
Yes, there was part of me that wanted to agree with my son that these children were horrible and mean. But right then, I kept my adult-brain in check (I don’t always).
The grown-up in me could see that neither of them actually intended to hurt his feelings, and it wouldn’t do my son any favours to believe that.
They just didn’t have the empathy to ‘be him’ in that moment, and he didn’t have the empathy to understand their perspective either.
Yes, some kids are hurtful on purpose (that’s a whole other post) but essentially, we don’t want to establish a belief in our kids that the world, and the people in it, are mean.
These setbacks will keep happening, and kids will cope better with them if they ultimately believe that the world is a good place to be, that most people in it are good.
Doesn’t it make rejection much easier to bear if you can just settle for the truth that there’s just a few peppered amongst us who haven’t learned kindness yet, or who didn’t practice it in that moment?
Repair the Rupture
My little boy’s soul was injured when he left that park. He went quiet for 10 minutes, then declared he was never going there again. Fair point…
But a fear of going to the park with the expectation that rejection would follow wasn’t going to serve him in the long run.
So the dog went home, and we went to another park where I could go in with him…
Because right then, it wasn’t about him getting back on the proverbial saddle and learning to ‘stick up for himself’. It was about repairing his relationship with ‘going to the park’.
So while he had delicious fun, I endured the thigh-burn of partnering him on equipment made for much shorter legs than mine.
And then he did something he’d have refused an hour earlier. He tackled the queue for the tunnel slide.
Yes, I watched from the swings, and no, he didn’t have to deal with rejection, so no, we haven’t mastered ‘stick up for yourself’ yet.
And we don’t need to, yet.
Increasingly, the depiction of resilience involves the image of a child wearing a super-hero cape while expressing their belief that they ‘can do anything’.
IMO, this puts undue pressure on children, and all of those who play a part in raising them. Nobody can ‘do anything’ and it’s misleading to expect children to believe that they can.
It’s times like this I have to remind myself that mine is not so much 7 years old than he is 7 years young, and there’s plenty of time to crack the difficult nut of ‘finding your voice’.
Right now what matters is that the park’ is still a place to have fun; it is manageable and unassociated with sadness and rejection that it was briefly…
That people, including other children, are still inherently good in his world…
That, while he may not embody the belief that ‘I can do anything’, he hasn’t been silenced into the belief that ‘he can’t’ either.
That is what matters more.
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