T. Atilla Ceranoglu, MD

Overcoming rejection

We yearn to socialize often, but skills are learned

Facing rejection is part of growing up. There are two types of children: Those who are rejected and those who will be rejected one day. Behaviors or acts not welcome by other peers often lead to rejection. This is not to say that a child brings it on to one's self a rejection or deserves it. Instead, it is rather to state that in any group of kids pulled from every different direction (with popularity contests, and or normal social demands) a rejection is bound to happen at any time to any one of them.

Behavioral problems and aggression are often associated with rejection and may require outside help. It is also possible that a child may misread an occasional exclusion from a play as a rejection. Such experiences are probably fine and not a concern. It is the chronic and repetitive rejection that parents should be concerned.

Young children, such as preschoolers, are often easily distracted and are much more likely to shrug off a push or a shove. Yet, when a parent intervenes unnecessarily, a similar situation may bring forth a more severe reaction. One should keep in mind that children model most of their reactions after their parents.

For older children, sadness, anger and self-loathing may manifest commonly when they feel rejected. School age children may be more susceptible to rejection by peers than preschoolers, but are often more resilient than teenagers. Teenagers may react more intensely and dramatically. They may initially express their frustration by a sullen pout, but are quick to express it with more words when elicited.

For a child who feels rejected, parents and caregivers have a lot more to offer than they tend to believe they could. Listen to your child's concerns and acknowledge the frustration expressed without overreacting. Often, that will be enough. Other children may require some training in new and effective social skills. For younger children, remind them to share, to wait for their turn, and encourage playing according to rules. Consistently demonstrating these skills to children while actually playing with them and their siblings (or other children, cousins, etc.) will do the trick. For older children, model social interactions by having them around when you are meeting friends as long as your child can tolerate. Consider a local manners and etiquette class. Most school districts offer these classes for a reasonable fee.

When your child is fresh out of a rejection, here is a 3-step approach to diffuse the reaction:

First, acknowledge your child's frustration with an empathic remark without overreacting. Say something like 'that must have hurt your feelings to be left out of the game' or 'it must be upsetting to get an F on that assignment.' An enjoyable snack will help your child hear you better.

Listen to your child's story without interrupting to point out inconsistencies in what you hear. Debunking a child's point or theory of what happened in a direct way often backfires; it is very difficult for most people to engage in a sound debate and be reasonable when overwhelmed. This is especially true for children and adolescents. Do not attempt to take matters in your hands, either, by going and teaching other children a lesson or mediating a peace accord. That will give your child the message that he is incapable of handling such situations. Instead, maintain the listening mode, you will have ample time and opportunity later to help your child see different points of view once the emotional storm is over and calmed.

Second, help your child explore what they can do to improve the situation. You may say something like, “I understand it is upsetting that your friends did not ask you to play whiffleball with them. What are you going to do to have fun now?” If available, an impromptu get together or a playdate with another friend could also help. If it was a party that your child was not invited to, how else can your child have fun? That may be the perfect time for that movie you two wanted to see together for so long. Your own experiences also come very handy here. How did you handle your anger when you were not invited to a party, or cut from a game, or anytime you felt rejected? Knowing that you have felt the same once and survived is a very powerful message for your child. Provide other common examples. I read somewhere Michael Jordan was cut as a sophomore from his high school team, but didn't give up — he practiced even more, tried out again the next year and went on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.  Even Albert Einstein failed his first college entrance

Third, if it was a sports team or school play he was picked last to or cut from, find out whether your child plans to continue with that activity. Do not be disappointed if your child wants none of it ever again; for most kids 'never' does not last a long time. Simply acknowledge the frustration, but leave the door open by saying, “I understand you are upset now and feel that way, but maybe as things turn out differently later, you may change your mind, too.” If your child truly loves the activity at hand, do everything you can to nurture it. Consider alternative leagues or teams your child can play in. When I was growing up, I was often last to be picked up to play on a soccer team at school; however, at my neighborhood, I was one of the first to be picked up, in fact I would do the picking up. That saving experience must have helped me quite a bit; to this day, I still love this most beautiful game.

Once a reputation is set, it takes a while to change it. It will be almost futile to take on an entire group of friends and try to change things around. This is not to say it is impossible. Instead, starting small, with conquering one to one can quickly spread the word that the child in question is cooler than thought. Talk to the teacher or the supervising adult of the activity at hand, and inquire about possible 'cliques' in the group. Start with them or other kids your child identified as 'close' and invite them for a movie or play date. One by one...