Imagine having your child lying in your lap sobbing because her own friends were hurting her feelings during her birthday party. That’s a special pain.
“what’s going on baby? Why are you so upset?”
[long involved tale of being excluded over and over] “…and then they told me I wasn’t their friend!”
[struggling to stay calm and sane] “oh honey… it’s your special day..”
“YES AND THEY ARE JUST MAKING ME FEEL NOT SPECIAL AT ALL”
*heart breaks and breaks and breaks*
There’s no pain quite like comforting your child when their feelings have been hurt, especially when they were hurt by people they love. It’s a unique kind of tenderness fused with white-hot rage tempered by the knowledge that your rage will ironically hurt your child even more were you to act upon it. I have spent many a night holding a sobbing son while he wondered why his dad did not show up, so this is not a new situation for me. I already know that to be comforting as a mom, all I have to do is hold my child, stroke their hair and murmur soothing words.
In order to help them heal, however, I need concrete answers to their questions and solutions to their pain… which I cannot realistically give.
This is the problem of peer exclusion.
Believe it or not, peer exclusion is part and parcel of bullying. As defined by psychologists and developmental specialists, peer exclusion (past the age of 5) is both a part of bullying and a form of bullying on its own. Some studies suggest peer exclusion and ridicule (without accompanying physical abuse) is more common among female peer groups. In any case, it is an aspect of bullying that has very little attention. Much like verbal an psychological abuse, however, peer exclusion merits attention right alongside “regular” bullying. The effects of this type of bullying are just as damaging and can have longer-lasting effects.
But how do we tackle this? How do we, as parents, approach something that straddles the line between self-formed identity and subtle cruelty?
The question is how do I give my child the respect as an individual to make her own social choices while instilling in her the values of being open-minded, tolerant and gentle with other people’s feelings? How do I teach her “include others” while teaching her “don’t be an emotional doormat”? While I want her to be loving and accepting of everyone, I don’t want her thinking that she is wrong to have preferences. I want her to see the shining light of humanity within each person while understanding that not everyone is a good person. I want her to learn love and tolerance and forgiveness, but I don’t want her thinking its her obligation to tolerate all behavior or forgive all trespassers. Just how do we define “accepting” anyway? Where do we draw the line at “other people making choices” and “other people being mean”?
In the most recent example of my child being excluded, I sat with her for a while, soothing her sobs until we could talk. She sat up and I said “maybe you need to find someone else to play with. If people aren’t letting you have your special day, then let them go”
I could tell this idea pained her: she wanted to enjoy everyone at her party, even if they refused to enjoy her. These were her friends- kids she’d grown up knowing. Some of them she’d known in the crib. These were people she had dubbed her favorites; its why they’d been invited to the party to begin with. But what I couldn’t make her see was that sometimes friendships form between your friends that you are not a part of and that soemtimes means you get left out. True, good friends will be happy to let you back in, find ways to include you, but sometimes kids just don’t want to do that… or they don’t care.
She went off to play with someone else… a relatively new friend and we continued with the party.
…until the next episode happened. It just so happened I was there for it and I was able to intervene in a way that made the whole situation very clear. I told the repeat offenders that they were guests in our house and they were there because Lil Miss wanted to spend time with them and that if they were not going to include her in playing with her toys that she got for her birthday, I’d be happy to call their parents and have them taken home. The kids in question looked at me completely stunned. One of them tried to explain why they needed to exclude her and I interrupted with no uncertainty. “I don’t care what your issue is with her, you are NOT going to take her toys, push her out of her room and not let her play. Make your choice” Suddenly all kids involved decided that perhaps playing with her was not such a bad thing after all. Ten minutes later they were all having a great time. Mind you, these are kids who, when playing with Lil Miss all alone have absolutely no problem playing with her and often ask for her company. This is how I know this isn’t just making social choices. This is about deliberate exclusion.
Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened to Lil Miss. And though similar situations have arisen at school, her teacher has assured me that she has intervened whenever possible – because its already well known that Lil Miss is easily upset by being excluded. Which makes her a prime target for bullying by peer exclusion. So this isn’t just something I talk about because I think “those uncouth kids…” this is a real problem that could dog her throughout childhood and beyond. This is an issue of self-esteem and fear of rejection. But its not something I will sit by and blame my daughter for. Yes, she needs to learn how to stand up for herself in a reasonable manner that shows she will not be manipulated. But its the other kids who are either unwittingly or cruelly choosing to exploit the biggest emotional pitfall she has right now and I won’t stand by and make her think its all on her to fix that problem. I’m not going to turn my head and make her believe that she’s overreacting to a make-believe problem. I’m not going to gas-light my own child just because other kids are being mean but not using actual violence. I’m going to speak up for her whenever I can and teach her to speak up too. Hopefully through our unified efforts, she will be ready by high school to shrug off the deliberate efforts to provoke and hurt her. Because I can see that coming a mile away. Conversely, its always possible that she may decide to go on the offensive and do the same to others to prevent it happening to her. I hope our talking and modeling together she will not go that route either. I hope I can raise her to understand the difference between being careless with someone’s feelings and being cruel.
I hope I raise her to understand how important it is to speak up, whether its for herself or for someone else.