When my son, Kevin, was 10, he came home from school one day and mentioned a party that was the talk of the fourth grade. “I wasn’t invited,” he told me sadly. That night, I phoned the mother of the boy who was hosting the festivities. “Sorry, but I left the guest list up to Rob,” she said. Kevin was unusually quiet the following evening. “Are you still upset about the party?” I asked. No, it was more: Rob had made fun of him because I’d stepped in. When Kevin said, “I really wish you hadn’t called,” I felt terrible–and confused. What should I have done?
Rejection is a double-edged sword; not only does it make kids feel unwanted, unloved, or even inept, but it can also stir up emotional turmoil in parents. “Getting rejected can really shatter a child’s self-esteem,” says Norma Doft, Ph.D., a child psychologist in New York City. “Parents may overreact, in part because they want to soothe their child and in part because they’re reexperiencing their own childhood angst.” Even the most well-intentioned parent can end up saying or doing things that only make matters worse.
Of course, we can’t make the world perfect for our kids. “But we can help them adapt to an imperfect world,” says Doft. Here, first-aid techniques to help take the sting out of rejection–and turn painful feelings into positive ones.
1. Help kids air their feelings. Sometimes, children are reluctant to talk about a rebuff. Encourage them with open-ended questions, ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, ask “How do you feel about not winning the election?” instead of “You must feel bad about not winning.” Avoid conversation stoppers such as “Don’t worry about it,” which can make kids feel bad about feeling bad. Do let them know that the way they’re feeling is perfectly normal.
With teens, it’s best to activate discussions by conveying a sense of understanding, says Sylvia Balderrama, Ed.D., director of psychological services at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. But don’t be put off if your teen snaps, “You’re just trying to make me feel better!” Simply reply, “Yes, I am.” Notes Balderrama, “They may not show it, but they are comforted by your sympathy.”
If your child remains closemouthed, respect his silence and back off, advises Lewis Lipsitt, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brown University in Providence. “Just say that you know he may not be ready to talk, but when he is, you’ll be there for him.” If the issue doesn’t come up again, it’s not necessary to raise it unless you notice that your child isn’t acting like his usual self. “Most children bounce back more quickly than parents think,” says Doft.
2. Don’t get philosophical. Eager to boost morale, parents often launch into life-isn’t-always-fair speeches. “This won’t be at all helpful, since kids–especially those under ten–tend to see things in terms of their own concrete experiences,” points out Frederic Medway, Ph.D., professor of child psychology at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “Your child may feel hurt that you’re glossing over his feelings.”
Another tactic to avoid is downplaying the rejection. “Don’t say that the party wasn’t important,” warns Margot Hammond, director of the Bank Street College of Education’s Family Center in New York City. “If you negate his feelings, they’ll become bigger, not smaller.” Similarly, try not to put down a friend–as in, “You don’t want to hang out with him anyway; he’s not nice.” If your child values the friendship, his self-esteem will only suffer another blow.
3. Shift your child’s focus. “Get her to think about explanations for a friend’s rejection other than `I’m a terrible person,'” says Doft. Now’s also a good time to point out that it’s fun to have lots of pals, even if she does have a favorite.
If you have a similar rejection experience from your own past, mention it, along with any steps you took to remedy the situation or make yourself feel better. Says Robin Scott Walker, a family counselor in Woodland Hills, CA, “Letting kids see that you are fallible may help them cope with their insecurity–and it gives them a sense that their hurtful experiences are not unique.”
4. Accentuate the positive. When a rejection involves a situation in which the child failed to achieve a goal, like not making cheerleading squad or losing an election, don’t bring up what the child might have done wrong. “Emphasize what went into the preparation,” says Medway. “If my ten-year-old doesn’t do well on a test but I know he’s studied for it, I tell him I’m proud of him because I know he did the best he could.” Compliment kids on their efforts, and reassure them that their time will come. “Just being a loving parent is one of the best ways to inoculate your child against the inevitable crises that are part of growing up,” adds Medway. If you’re pretty sure that your child needs coaching in a certain area, wait a few weeks until the initial hurt wears off before making suggestions.
Be sure, too, to mind your motives for wanting a child to be accepted. “They may stem from your own insecurities or failures,” says Walker. Putting pressure on kids to be prima ballerinas or football stars when they lack the talent only sets them up for failure.
5. Encourage action. “Moving kids to a phase where they’re considering options will help them forget their disappointment,” says Doft. If your teen isn’t hired for a summer waitressing job, discuss other employment possibilities. If your child didn’t make the soccer team, suggest another sports activity–perhaps a less competitive one, like karate.
When a child has a falling out with a friend, is it wise to suggest that she confront the person? That depends; in general, kids aren’t ready to engage in this type of discussion until their preteen years. By then, it can prove beneficial: “Talking things through helps build important social skills like assertiveness and communication,” notes Medway.
If your child is consistently left out of group games or social events, however, she may need help. “If need be, speak with your child’s teacher to get clues,” says Doft. The next time an incident arises, gently ask your child if there’s any reason she can think of for the rejection–then help her in areas in which she seems to need improvement. One effective method is to role-play a situation so she can see, for example, that she needs to be less critical of others.
Unless it’s essential, resist the temptation to intercede on a child’s behalf. “When a parent calls the coach of a team, for example, to find out why a child wasn’t chosen, the nonverbal message is, `Let me handle this because I don’t trust you,'” says Walker. “This can undermine a child’s sense of competence–and leave him unprepared to deal with rejection the next time it occurs.”
6. Provide a distraction. In the end, it’s important not to let kids dwell on a rejection for too long, says Lipsitt. “Offer an antidote, whether it’s a trip to the ice-cream shop or inviting a group of kids over for a sleep over.”
That’s the approach I took with my son. On the night of the big party, Kevin and I went out to McDonald’s and a movie. We both enjoyed our special time alone–and the party didn’t come up once.
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