Recently my son came home from school looking pretty glum. A boy he had been nurturing a new friendship with had turned on him, calling him a loser and leaving him adrift in the playground at lunchtime.
My son told me this as he sat in the car, staring out of the window.
“How did that make you feel?” I asked him.
“Worthless, Mum,” he said to me. “I felt like nothing.”
My motherly instincts instantly went on high alert. I felt an unruly mix of despair and blind fury - I wanted to cry and throttle the little twerp who had been so unkind to my boy at the same time. But I took a few deep breaths to transform myself from wild mamma bear to patient, mindful mum and said the following:
“What do you know about this boy?”
My son shrugged. “He has five big brothers I think. But no Mum.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Do you think his big brothers talk to him like that?”
“So maybe that’s normal for him. Calling people a loser and stuff. Maybe his brothers say that to him a lot.”
“Yeah,” my son said thoughtfully. Then: “That would suck. I kinda feel sorry for him.”
“Me too,” I agreed. “Especially seeing as you’re not a loser. You’re a great kid - you’re funny and you have really good ideas for games. You’re just still looking for your tribe.”
My son turned to me and gave me a hug, said thanks and then asked for a snack (that’s usually a pretty solid indicator that he’s fine and chat time is over).
I tell this story because it’s not the first time we’ve had a conversation like this. My son has struggled to find his tribe since starting school - that solid group of friends he can rely on to hang out with at lunchtime or have play dates with on the weekend. Instead, he’s floated around the edges of groups, flirted with a few friendships, and fallen in and out with people.
It used to really hurt him. He used to feel the absence of friendship keenly, and as a result would make a beeline for kids, sometimes throwing his arms around them, trying to pull them into his game and, ultimately, his friendship. His exuberance would sometimes be a bit much for other children, and they would bolt, leaving him more confused than ever.
So we talked about the importance of giving people personal space and the difference between a friendly pat on the back and a crushing bearhug. We discussed ideas for good topics of conversation with new people. We tried activities outside of school in the hope it would help him broaden his social skills away from the school environment he was used to. I facilitated play dates with other parents with kids his age. I talked to the school to see what support they could offer.
But the most important thing I have done by far is to talk to him about how to manage the pain of rejection. How he feels when kids don’t invite him to birthday parties and how that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him - those kids just aren’t his tribe. I tell him I didn’t meet most of my tribe until I was a bit older, and how I am proud to now have a loving, supportive group of friends. I tell him not to settle for anything less.
When he cops criticism or teasing for not being a good runner or falling behind in maths, or any of the other myriad reasons that kids pick on each other - I remind him of his good qualities. We go through and list them together.
Then we talk about why people are mean to one another; perhaps they are jealous of one of his other achievements; perhaps someone else was mean to them that day; perhaps they don’t hear a lot of kind words at home. I go through this process with my son because when we talk about the reasons that someone is unkind, it often removes the sting. If we can turn an insult or unkindness to compassion for the other person, it enables us not to take it so personally - and the resulting wounds to our sense of self is considerably lessened.
To the parents out there who want to fix this for their kids, whose hearts are breaking, torturing themselves with visions of their kids wandering the playground alone and sad - let me offer you something else I’ve learned: this will not break your kid. This, in fact, is a wonderful chance for you to help them develop their emotional resilience. It’s an opportunity to talk about the fact that not everyone is going to like them, and that’s okay. That as they go through life, they will come up against kids, teachers, bosses and colleagues that will not warm to them, despite their best efforts to be friendly and likeable.
This is your chance to tell your kid that good friends are worth waiting for. Remind them that there’s a big world out there, and that there are kids just like them, feeling the same feelings and looking for their tribe, too.
And while they are waiting, they can still like themselves because they are amazing and funny and talented and it’s only a matter of time before others see it too.
These opinions are entirely my own and not intended to replace the advice of your health professional, friends or your own gut instincts. That being said, I hope you find these stories helpful in some way and please feel free to share or connect on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fourseasbooks/