There may be nothing more crushing to a parent’s heart than hearing that someone is being mean to your child. Or, even worse, that your child is being left out by their peers. It may even conjure up memories of your own childhood traumas.
While bullying and excluding others aren’t something new, today’s social interactions don’t just take place in person. There’s a whole social network online to navigate—which means lots of new ways for children to feel excluded and let down. Suddenly, kids are a little more particular about who they hang with and social activities become a little more awkward and uncomfortable.
As kids traverse these changes, it doesn’t matter how well-adjusted or well-liked they are, they are bound to feel left out at some point in time. Perhaps they’ve become one wheel too many in a friend group, or maybe they’re being ignored on the playground or left out of a social event. Whatever the case, your child may be a victim of what’s called relational aggression.
What is relational aggression?
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, relational aggression “refers to harm within relationships that is caused by covert bullying or manipulative behavior,” such as socially excluding someone from a group, spreading gossip and rumors or giving someone the “silent treatment.”
“Social exclusion is quite profound and can take many forms,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “It’s pervasive not only in the humans but also in other animals such as chimps. We are social animals; we want to get along and fit in—especially when we’re younger—but maintaining peer relationships during this time can be fraught with complications.”
So, what can you do as a parent?
As a parent, you’re often left wondering what to do to help. Should you stay out of it or step in and help? Dr. Adelayo shared some things parents can do to help their child overcome exclusion and build lasting friendships.
Ways You Can Help Your Child Cope When They’re Being Excluded
1. Listen intently
When your child comes home from school and shares they are being left out, try not to react too quickly (I know, it’s hard to control mama/papa bear mode when someone comes after your child). Encourage them to talk and then let them talk—don’t interrupt, criticize or diminish what they’re sharing with you.
2. Validate feelings
When they’re done sharing, validate their feelings and demonstrate you understand how they feel. Affirm that they have the right to be safe and feel secure.
3. Keep it in perspective
Remind them that every child goes through this—whether they are “popular” or not. If applicable, ask them if they’d like to hear about your own personal encounters as a child navigating similar circumstances. Let them know that friendships will change a lot over the years—especially those tween and young adult years. Remind them of the healthy relationships and friendships they do have with others; those people in their lives who bring them joy and see their worth.
4. Make home a comforting and safe space
Home is where the heart is. Your child may feel very isolated right now and school may be distressing at the moment. Make home a safe haven for them. Tell and show your child that they are unconditionally loved and valued by their family. While you aren’t the same as having a friend, remind them that you will never leave them out, and they can always count on you.
5. Establish other connections
Encourage your child to branch out and play/socialize with other kids. They may just discover other people with the same interests. Help them foster those friendships through playdates and scheduled activities. By broadening their circle of friends, they’ll develop confidence and feel comfort on those days when they’re feeling left out in other areas.
6. Find healthy coping skills
Help your child find healthy ways to cope, such as journaling, crafting, listening to music, exercising, playing sports or volunteering. Finding an outlet can help them deal with the stress and anxiety they are experiencing and may even help them to develop connections with like-minded people.
7. Set boundaries with others
Help your child learn how to stand up for themselves in an assertive and respectful manner. Develop ways they can communicate their distress and acknowledge the inappropriate behavior. Practice statements like, “Stop it. I don’t like what you are doing.” Remind them to seek support from their teacher, the school and you, as their parent, if the relational aggression continues.
8. Know when to seek help
While you want your child to learn to solve their own issues, if your child is being physically threatened or harmed at school, let the administration know.
If relational aggression has your child depressed and anxious and it’s affecting their day-to-day life, please contact one of Banner Health’s trusted child and adolescent specialists for help. Never ignore the impact this type of behavior can have on your child.
If your child is contemplating suicide or self-harm, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).