Lori Brown’s* daughter Bonnie loved to dance and worked hard at it. Brown recalls when Bonnie entered a festival as a soloist. “The judging took place publicly, with the dancer standing facing the audience. Bonnie was in a class with three entries. Her entry was a very risky avant-garde piece. The adjudicator placed the other two dancers first and second, and didn’t place Bonnie at all.”
Being third would have been bad enough, but by refusing to even give Bonnie last place, the adjudicator made the rejection painfully obvious.
It’s heart-wrenching to see the child you love rejected. “I hate this part of parenting,” Brown says.
Psychologist Linda Bream, who practises in Guelph, Ont., says Brown isn’t the only one: “When our children hurt, we hurt.” Seeing our children rejected often triggers memories of our own painful childhood experiences, she adds, so we often react emotionally. And that’s not helpful. Rejection — being cut from a sports team, being humiliated at a dance competition, or being excluded from a party— is part of life, something we all experience and need to cope with.
Parent educator Susanne Harach-Vatne, who works for Alberta Health Services in Calgary, says we need to be able to set our own emotions aside when our children have been rejected. “Our job is to simply listen and validate their feelings.” She recommends using “active listening,” which helps to let children know you are really paying attention to the emotions under their words (see Listen).
*Names changed by request.
Bream says it’s a mistake to try to quickly cheer up the child. “She needs to really feel the disappointment and then adapt to it. So don’t try to fix it and don’t deny her feelings,” she says. “The most important way a parent can help is by being a strong base for the child. You are the place they can come back to and get filled up, the place they are really seen and heard, and feel they belong. Then they can go back out to the world and suffer the inevitable rejections and disappointments, knowing that you have their back.”
While it can be tempting to respond with “That adjudicator doesn’t know anything,” comments like that can short-circuit the process the child needs to work through. Bream says you may be able to help your child open up to her feelings by sharing stories of your own childhood rejections — stories that let her know that you, too, felt really upset and disappointed at the time, but were able to find other friends, other teams, other opportunities.
For Lori Brown, the solution to her daughter’s rejection was — vegetables. “She wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. She just could not bear her caring friends or the other dancers wanting to sympathize with her. So I got her out. The grocery store was closing in 15 minutes, so we went there and bought all the expensive vegetables that we have mostly as treats: avocados, artichokes, asparagus. Then we went home and ate them.”
Bonnie told her mother later that she was so relieved not to have to talk about the situation right away. After getting all the veggie treats, she was able to deal with her bruised feelings and feel supported by her mother.
Of course, vegetables won’t work for everyone. “You need to know your child,” says Bream. “The most important things to do in this situation are to keep your own feelings in check and stay connected to your child. Let her know that rejection is hard, but it is also part of life and something we all experience.”
Calgary parent educator Susanne Harach-Vatne describes these tips to encourage your child to talk about his experience with rejection:
• When your child starts to tell you what happened, respond with comments that recognize his feelings: “You must have felt hurt” or “You sound angry” or “It’s awful to feel left out.” Those feelings are real and important.
• If your child seems to want to continue the conversation, you may be able to help him identify how he’d like the situation to be different. “You’d like to have friends who will include you in more things that they do” or “You want to find a team you can play with.”
• That may lead to some brainstorming about things he might do next. Don’t judge or criticize his ideas — accept them and, when he’s finished, he may want to review them to see which could work. At that point, you could ask if he’d like to hear any of your ideas. Don’t offer any if he says no!
• Your child doesn’t want to talk? You can say, “Sometimes kids feel really hurt when they don’t get picked for the team.” But don’t push too hard. Let him know you’re there if he wants to talk.
When rejection is bullying
What about the child who is frequently rejected by other kids? “This may mean the child has some difficulty with social skills, or is tuning out or missing cues from his environment,” says psychologist Linda Bream. “You may be able to help by trying to set the child up for some social success — maybe invite one child to go to a movie or play mini-golf or something fun. Your child’s teacher might be able to suggest someone who might be a good match or set something up in the classroom — assigning the two to do a project, for example.”
Harach-Vatne adds that frequent rejection can also be a form of bullying. “Deliberately leaving out or isolating a child is a serious kind of bullying,” she says. “If you suspect this may be the problem, it’s worth going to the child’s teacher to find out what he or she is seeing as well.”