7 Tips for Helping Kids Deal With Being Ostracized

Young girl sitting alone at lunch

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People often picture bullying as a face-to-face conflict. They envision bullies teasing, taunting, pushing, shoving, and possibly hitting others. Maybe they imagine a child being called names and made fun of. But there is also another less visible but just as harmful form of bullying called relational aggression.

With this type of bullying, kids socially reject, exclude, or ostracize other children. Relational aggression becomes more and more evident as kids get into middle school and junior high and can continue through adulthood. It's even commonplace in the workplace among adults. Dealing with this kind of bullying can be a challenge for kids, especially as they may be suffering in silence. However, there are many ways parents can help kids who are being ostracized.

Overview

Being excluded causes a lot of pain, especially at a time when peer relationships are so important. Not only do socially rejected kids suffer emotionally, but they also can suffer academically, too. And if a child grows into adulthood feeling worthless, shunned, or less valued than others, it can cause mental health issues.

"If and when parents feel their child is not thriving at school, for any reason, they need to first and foremost get the school on board to inquire and intervene," advises Siggie Cohen, PhD, a child development specialist and counselor with over 35 years experience. How parents respond and care for their child at these times can make a huge difference, she explains.

Although you cannot prevent your child from being ostracized, there are many things you can do to help if it does happen, such as offering your support and taking their feelings seriously, says Dr. Cohen. Here are seven ways you can help your child cope with being excluded at school.

Validate Your Child's Feelings

When your child opens up about their experiences, make sure they feel safe sharing with you, notes Dr. Cohen. Listening is key so that your child feels heard. "It is extremely easy for children to feel alone and isolated with their problems," she explains.

Also, do your best not to inadvertently shame your child for being ostracized, says Andy Brimhall, PhD, LMFT, a therapist and professor at East Carolina University, specializing in marital and family conflict and child behavioral problems.

Avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as meaning that they should be different somehow or should try harder to be liked. Instead, focus on listening and empathizing with how they are feeling, recommends Dr. Brimhall. Communicate that no one deserves to be excluded and emphasize that they have a lot to offer the world.

Be sure your child can identify the difference between unkind behavior and bullying. Sometimes, when kids are excluded, it may be disappointing but it’s not intentionally meant to harm them, explains Dr. Brimhall. Even though it hurts to be left out, it does happen. This is especially true for things like birthday parties when only so many kids can be invited.

Help your child determine if the kids at school were making a deliberate effort to exclude them or if they were left off the guest list without malice. Regardless of which situation your child experienced, don't minimize their hurt feelings, says Dr. Brimhall. Both situations can be painful and need to be addressed with compassion, guidance, and support.

Empower Your Child

Emphasize that your child has no control over what other people say or do. They can, however, control how they respond, says Dr. Brimhall. Work with them to come up with ideas on how to handle the situation and overcome the hurt of being bullied. The goal is for them to not feel helpless, but instead to feel empowered with different options and ways of reacting, such as focusing on other friends or social outlets.

Also, while honoring their hurt feelings is crucial, aim to help them avoid victim thinking. What they experienced may be unfair, cruel, and painful, but it does not mean that they have to remain a victim of this behavior. Empower your child to move beyond this situation so that it doesn't define who they are.

Don't Jump Into "Fix-It" Mode

When appropriate, resist the urge to automatically take over the situation, no matter how much you want to, suggests Dr. Brimhall. Give advice but listen to what your child thinks first. Give them a chance to handle the issue rather than jumping in right away to "fix" it for them.

Evaluate Each Situation Individually

Remember that these issues are all unique, says Dr. Cohen. "Not every time a child complains to parents that their friends are being mean to them is a cause for alarm or immediate parental intervention." Different approaches and levels of parental involvement will work better in different situations. So, you will need to find out more information—and follow your gut—on how involved you should be, explains Dr. Cohen.

For example, unless you know the parents of the kids doing the excluding well, it may not be helpful to call them. However, if you are good friends with the parents, it may be worthwhile to have a conversation about what's going on. Either way, aim to let your child decide how they want to handle the situation, suggests Dr. Brimhall.

Trust and Listen to Your Child

Show your child that you trust their decisions. Doing so will go a long way in rebuilding self-esteem. It also helps to build assertiveness, autonomy, and strength.

"Most importantly, aim to be there for backup should they need it," says Dr. Brimhall. Guide them in how to overcome the situation, but let them take the lead. Your child needs your support, your listening ear, and your empathy, but they need to be empowered, too, he explains. Let them know you have their back, but that you also believe in their ability to handle the situation, if it's appropriate. 

Step In When Needed

Depending on the specific circumstances and your child's age, temperament, and any social-emotional-developmental issues, you may need to step in, advises Dr. Cohen. Evaluate the severity of the bullying, how well equipped (or not) your child is to deal with it, and what the adults involved (such as teachers, coaches, or other parents) may be able to do to help, explains Dr. Cohen.

Siggie Cohen, PhD

Any drastic change in children’s behaviors should be closely looked at and requires intervention.

— Siggie Cohen, PhD

Behaviors such as a refusal to go to school or leave their room, loss of appetite, sudden change in appearance, becoming non-communicative, loss of interest in extra-curricular activities, family time, or hobbies, and rapid drop in grades can all be warning signs that a child is facing difficulties beyond their ability to navigate on their own, says Dr. Cohen. 

You know your child and their needs best, so if you think you should get involved, then consider it, agrees Dr. Brimhall. Just be sure to also include your child and aim to only get involved to the level that is needed and desired.

Help Your Child Make Friends

Having healthy friendships is one of the best ways to prevent bullying. Having at least one good friend will give a child a sense of belonging and positive self-worth, which can go a long way in reducing the impact of being rejected by other kids. In fact, studies show that childhood friendships can have a lasting protective impact on mental health in the short term and into adulthood. Look for ways you can help your child develop friendships, suggests Dr. Brimhall.

Encourage them to make friends at school, at your place of worship, on sports teams, or through other activities they're interested in. Remind them that the people excluding them are not the only potential friends out there. Instead of focusing on what those people are doing, your child can look for ways to invite new people into their life. They may feel a lot better about their situation if they have other friends to focus on besides the kids who are ostracizing them.

Encourage Activities

When your child is involved in extracurricular activities, whether it’s sports, yearbook staff, a faith group, or a reading club, they have an opportunity to make new friends and build self-confidence. Outside activities also give kids the opportunity to release tension, develop creativity, and blow off steam. Don't underestimate the importance of getting kids involved in activities outside of school.

What's more, when kids are involved in activities, they are able to be around peers and socialize. The need for social media also decreases because they have more face-to-face contact with others. As a result, involvement in extracurricular activities reduces the risk of cyberbullying and other unhealthy online behaviors because their free time is more productive and anchored in the real world.

Improve Your Child’s Social Skills

Often, when a child is ostracized, it’s the result of other kids being mean or oblivious. But sometimes kids are excluded, in part, because they are lacking social skills. This does not in any way mean your child is to blame for being excluded. The bullies are still responsible for their behavior. However, social awkwardness on your child's part may play a role in exacerbating the issue.

But if social awkwardness is a factor, you can help prevent future incidents by helping your child hone their social skills. Also, assist your child in developing the traits needed to cope with bullying, such as self-advocacy, stress reduction techniques, and putting things in perspective, recommends Dr. Brimhall. By doing so, you also will be instilling healthy habits and traits that will benefit your child indefinitely.

Consider Outside Help

Being socially rejected can affect your child in a number of ways including negatively impacting self-esteem.

Siggie Cohen, PhD

Children spend many hours at school, and if, or when, that environment is unsafe to them in any way, the damage to their academic as well as physical and emotional well-being is huge and even life-threatening.

— Siggie Cohen, PhD

It's a good idea to get outside help if your child is struggling. A pediatrician or a counselor can assess your child for depression as well as screen for thoughts of suicide. Even if your child appears fine to you, it never hurts to get a second opinion, and it will let your child know that you take their well-being very seriously.

It also may help your child to have someone to talk to besides a parent. Outside counselors or even another trusted adult can be more objective and less emotionally involved. As a result, they may be able to offer tips and suggestions that you did not consider. Counseling also can empower your child to take back control in their life.

If you or your child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

A Word From Verywell

Being rejected feels lousy. In fact, some research says it can hurt as much as physical injury. So, be careful not to minimize how your child is feeling. Listen and empathize with what they have to say. Offer patience, encouragement, and unconditional love. With a little help and guidance from you, your child can learn and grow from this situation and come away feeling stronger and more sure of themselves. 

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.