My Child is Being Left Out. What Should I Do?

Question:  My Child is left out and not included in playing with other kids at her kindergarten school.

Answer:  When we see our child is left out, excluded, or lonely, we naturally want to fix it for them.  Seeing our children unhappy often brings up some painful childhood memories of similar times when we were excluded.  Naturally, we try to help them feel better by giving them suggestions or scripts to take them out of the experience.  We may say, “you should just go up to the kids and join,” or “if those kids don’t want to play with you, it’s their loss.  Find some kids who will play with you.  “

Here is what I see as the problem with that approach.  When your child was excluded, they likely felt it was their fault, like something was wrong with them.  Then your well-intentioned advice may have layered on the feeling that they aren’t good enough because they didn’t have the correct response.  If they go to school the next day and it happens again, your child is left feeling even more alone because they cannot do what you suggested, and now they are all alone without your support.  Feeling alone and bullied feels awful for your child, but feeling alone, excluded, and unable to do anything about it because they are without your help is even more awful.

So what might you do instead? 

Talking to us about a painful experience is essential for kids.  When they tell us about a painful experience, we want to connect with empathy and validation and respond with open-ended questions.  What do I mean by this? 

Let’s imagine your 5-year-old child approached a group of kids playing with Legos at a table and was told, “you can’t play with us.  You’re not our friend.” Your child came home, told you, and was in tears over what happened. 

First, connect.  You know your child.  When my kids were little, I would get down to their level, put my arms around them, and just let them absorb my presence and empathy while allowing their tears to flow.  When there were no more tears, I started a conversation by acknowledging how awful that felt and validating the feelings.   “Being told your friends don’t want to play with you is so hard.  I’d be sad too if my friends told me they didn’t want to get together with me.”  Then continue, “I’m so glad you are talking to me about this.  It’s really hard to be left out.    This feels really important to talk about.  In our family, we value talking about our feelings and difficult or tricky situations. 

Lastly, I would be curious about the experience by asking your child questions that encourage them to tell you more about their experience.  The questions might be.  “So which table were you playing at, the one in the corner or the one by the door?” “I see the one by the door.”  “How many kids were playing at the table.?”  “What happened after they said they didn’t want to play with you.”  “Were you big sad or really big sad?”  “I see you were really big sad.”  

What are you doing?  You are helping your child recognize and make sense of the feelings and sensations in her body.  The questions aren’t so important; you are joining with your child inside the experience.  You are helping her build a coherent narrative for the experience.  You jumping into the whole world of the experience with your child also tells your child that her big emotions won’t overwhelm you.  You are a safe haven for her big emotions, and the next time she feels overwhelmed by something that happens at school, she knows she can talk to you, and you will help her make sense of the experience and problem solve with her.  

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