Today I was at the park with my daughter. We saw our neighbors there. They had their 6 year old daughter, a cousin of about the same age, and were meeting a friend who also had a 6 year old daughter. While the three girls were playing together, another mom brought her 6 year old daughter to the park. It was clear the kids all knew each other from school because greetings were exchanged. Despite this, there was no effort to include the new girl. I watched as she played near the other three. They never made eye contact with her. A couple of times she contributed to the conversation and the other three girls acted as if they couldn’t even hear her. Finally she gave up and enlisted her mom to play with her.
It was a bit of a shock to me how early this all starts. As a therapist I should know this, but since I mainly work with teenagers, I don’t encounter the cliques of young children on a daily basis.
However, I do know both personally, and from my clients, how devastating it feels to be on the outside during teenage years. I experienced being left out mostly ages 11 through 12 and it was painful. Many clients I work with continue to feel this pain through high school.
For the boys and girls who come to therapy because they are disincluded, we work hard on assertiveness (not to be confused with rudeness or aggressiveness). It seems kids who are not included lack the ability to confidently assert themselves. They express a weakness in their opinions that leaves them open to ridicule. They don’t defend themselves when they are teased, they struggle to tease back, and they personalize the off-handed things their peers say. It is hard work, but not impossible work, to help these teenagers change how they relate to other teens.
On the other hand, I think there is a responsibility parents have to work with their teenagers on being inclusive. Kindness is natural to some, but for most it is learned. We all like certain people better than others, and are drawn to certain personalities more than others. It takes maturity to include the people who are not as likable for whatever reason. This doesn’t mean your teenager needs to be best friends with someone they don’t mesh with. However, it’s really important for your child to make an effort to be inclusive in group situations.
Here are examples of situations where you get the opportunity to help your teenager practice being inclusive. If your teenager is on a sports team there is always one or two other teens who don’t quite fit in with the team. If your teenager is in a high school youth group or small group, when the whole group is together help your teen practice making an extra effort with the ones who struggle to flow with the group. These are important skills to learn because they teach empathy, awareness, and compassion. Besides this, your child just might make a world of difference for someone else who feels dejected and rejected.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT