How To Help A Kid Who Is Being Ostracized

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grade-school age girl in braids looks solemnly at camera

School is back in full swing and some kids are loving it; reconnecting and building new friendships while others are being shunned and ostracized.

I am getting many heartbreaking emails from parents who are feeling helpless as they watch from the sidelines as their child cowers from the pain of rejection. One parent shares how her third grader approached several groups to play, but wasn’t allowed to join. Another shares how her son approached a table and was told that he could not sit with them, yet later was asked for homework help.

If your child is coming to you and saying they are being left out — that is so much easier than the child who denies he has a problem.

Is ostracizing a form of bullying?

Short answer: Yes. Socially rejecting, excluding, and ostracizing others is a form of bullying called relational aggression and is seen more often as kids get into middle school. In fact, relational aggression is even common in the workplace. 

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What is relational aggression?

Relational aggression is an elusive form of bullying that others outside of the target may not notice. Parents, teachers, and others often do not notice this form of abuse and frequently the kids who are performing this type of manipulation are kids that you wouldn’t expect it from. Although this type of behavior is seen more often in girls, it is not limited to gender.

The vehicles for this type of aggression vary but often include cyberbullying, shaming, excluding, ostracizing, gossiping, spreading rumors, public humiliation, and exuding peer pressure.

Dealing with this kind of bullying can be very difficult for kids and their parents. Many, if not most of the victims, suffer in silence. And if they have a history of struggling to make friends and connections, it can be exacerbated.

What are the effects of relational aggression?

As relational aggression does not leave physical scars, parents and educators may underestimate its effects. Do not mistake its importance, however, as it can be as hurtful, and perhaps even more so, than physical aggression.

Look carefully for the signs of distress, including depression, friendship difficulties, academic struggles, changes in eating habits, self-esteem issues, and suicidal thoughts. Take these characteristics seriously. They might be mood swings, but they also might signal something more serious.

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How to help a kid who is being ostracized:

1. Listen.

If you are lucky enough to have a kid who confides in you, take the time to listen. Resist the urge to jump in and fix things; sometimes just being heard is all they need.

2. Speak out.

Bring your concerns to a teacher, recess monitors, bus drivers, administrator, or the parent of a child or teen whose behavior is concerning. The sooner the situation is addressed, the higher the likelihood that the behavior will go away, or at least be lessened. Be sure to use a calm tone when addressing the issues as problem-solving calls for collaboration.

3. Join activities.

Find a group, club, activity, sport, etc., for him and immediately enroll him so that he can make peer connections with kids who share his interests. These kids will (hopefully) become his friends on the playground, too.

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4. Reach out to the school.

Let them know what’s going on and ask for help. I’d ask the school to pair him up with one or more kids with similar interests so that he has some points of connection to help him ease into a dialog. 

5. Set up a game plan now.

Often kids delay going up to others until the games have already formed. Unfortunately, kids can be insensitive about welcoming kids in.

So, work with your son now to examine what games kids play and what he could join. Although joining a group can be very intimidating, let them know that they don’t have to ask to enter, because kids can simply say, “No!”

Talk about how it is important to show up at the beginning and to take on a role before they are all chosen.

Role-play with him on how he can approach kids during the day before recess and before after-school activities. You may want to join something like soccer where he’s learning to physically navigate into a group.

Sports aren’t for every kid and in some cases, it can be the exact wrong thing to do. As a parent, you know what he’s interested in. 

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6. Make inclusion a core value in your family.

Although our first reaction may be to point out how others are wrong, we should remember to coach our kids on how to treat others kindly and fairly.

7. Ask open-ended questions.

Ask about what behavior she sees, what she thinks is happening, and what factors might be contributing to it (personalities, time, place, or other pressures). Problem solves with your child and her friends to help them find how they can navigate the situation. Use social spy — to find out what others do and talk about, ask your child, “Who are your friends and where can you join them?” and build common ground.

Discuss how social skills don’t come easy to everyone and practice social smarts that help kids connect or be kinder. What could you do to be helpful in that situation? What would you want someone to say to you if you were feeling that way?

Share from personal experience a time when you weren’t as empathetic as you might have been, why you try harder now and why it matters to you. When your child uses a snarky look or comment that disrespects another child, talk about it.

Ask your child to practice taking another person’s point of view and stepping into someone else’s shoes. Ask, “How do you think James might feel in this situation?” “What could be going in May’s life that she would behave this way?”

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8. Express that it’s not their fault.

Talk about ways they can react. Let them know that it is not their fault and that they can’t control others, only themselves.

9. Celebrate.

Does he have a history of struggling socially or is this new? If there’s a history, use the lessons from Why Will No One Play with Me?  to build key social skills. In the case of kids who struggle socially, this can be a long journey; not a sprint. It’s important that you celebrate every little win – and that goes for both of you!

Parents and educators play an important role in showing kids how to respond to difficult situations and how to extend friendly.

What to do if none of this works.

If your kid continues to be ostracized even after implementing these recommendations, consider counseling to help them express their feelings and learn healthy coping skills. Have them evaluated by a doctor if you notice signs of depression. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor if your child is having suicidal thoughts. If they are in immediate danger, call 911.

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Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC founded and facilitates a comprehensive SEL training methodology for adults, parents, clinicians, and academic professionals on how to develop critical social, emotional, and behavioral skills, in themselves and in others.

This article was originally published at Connection Matters. Reprinted with permission from the author.