4 Ways to Help Kids Who Feel Left OutNot getting invited to a party. Being picked last for a pickup basketball game. Not getting a joke that everyone around you is cracking up over. Almost everybody has experiences like these from time to time. And usually we get over it…unless it becomes a recurring pattern. Often, parents need to step in to help kids who feel left out.

Peer rejection is felt most acutely by children, especially during adolescence when hormone levels and the yearning to be accepted are at fever pitch. The rules for belonging to a group change during puberty. An article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience says that during this time there’s “a shift in the behaviors that youth consider to be desirable and necessary to gain social status. For example, peer rejection is a dominant form of negative treatment among peers at this age.” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat allow relentlessly connected teens to exclude others on a larger scale, either overtly or through coded language shared by those in the know. While always being connected makes it easier to share good news quickly with a wide audience, it can also be used to trash someone’s reputation to the multitudes.

According to an article in Frontiers in Psychiatry, social exclusion deflates mood and reduces people’s sense of belonging, self-esteem, control, and even “meaningful existence.” It also makes them more skeptical and reluctant to make a connection when meeting new people. These negative effects are not surprising, considering that exclusion has caused people to feel burned in the past.

Other consequences of being shut out of the group are not so obvious. Social exclusion…

  • Increases the likelihood of aggression against innocent targets. In studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, subjects were manipulated to think others had rejected them, felt neutrally toward them, or praised them. In a subsequent experiment, subjects had the option to press a button that would direct a disturbing noise at another participant. “Rejected” subjects tended to blast higher levels of noise at those who had rejected them but also at those who had acted neutrally toward them; they spared only those who had issued them praise. Other study findings have also shown that feeling ostracized can cause people to lash out at innocent bystanders.
  • Causes people to be more impulsive and to act against their best interests. In a series of studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants who were led to believe that they would either be alone in the future or that no one else in a group wanted to work with them ate more cookies and were less willing to drink a healthy (though untasty) beverage than other participants. They also quit working on projects sooner. Marte Otten, Ph.D., and Kai J. Jonas, Ph.D., who conducted the research at the University of Amsterdam, found that the neural processes underlying “unwanted behavior” were inhibited in people who thought they were being socially excluded.
  • Leads to more impulsive behavior in some situations but more attentiveness in others—specifically, during tasks in which an error is more likely (as measured in a video game involving players who were instructed to either toss or not toss a ball to another player). “Our results show that exclusion has a differential effect on the different sub-components of cognitive control,” noted Drs. Otten and Jonas. “Exclusion makes people invest more in the detection of a response conflict but less in the actual inhibition of unwanted, impulsive responses.”

How Parents Can Help

Mothers and fathers can and should play an important role in protecting their children against feeling shunned. They can help their kids recognize whether they’re really being excluded and process their feelings about it, as well as develop coping skills so exclusion doesn’t progress into a more serious emotional problem. Here are 4 valuable tips for parents:

  1. Maintain a comfort zone for communication. Help your child feel at ease about confiding in you by not overreacting to her concerns or making her feel ashamed. Be nonjudgmental, focus on listening, and provide empathy.
  2. Differentiate meanness from bullying. Try to learn the specific circumstances of the social situation to help your child understand whether there was a deliberate effort to exclude or whether it was a random event rather than a recurring pattern.
  3. Resist “fixing” the situation. It’s in your child’s interest to figure out how to get through an episode of rejection himself, so he can develop skills that transfer to similar situations in the future. However, you should let your child know if you think he’s trying to fit in with a crowd that’s not right for him.
  4. Consider outside help if the situation seems serious. If the exclusion seems chronic and not specific to one group of kids, it may be worthwhile for your child to see a therapist. Therapy may help your child regain self-esteem and develop stronger coping skills.

In many cases, a child’s claim of being excluded is a reflection of personal insecurity rather than rejection. But it’s important to get to the truth of the matter as soon as possible. If not, children in this situation can end up being unfairly branded as undesirable members of any group.

Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships

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