Helping Kids Handle Rejection

Ouch! Rejection hurts, and we all know it. Who doesn’t want … no, need … to feel accepted, liked, and admired? Each of us has a collection of stories about the team we didn’t make, the clique that left us out, or the college we had our heart set on that sent a thin envelope.

But what hurts even more … what makes us wish it was us, not them, is when our kids feel the sting. There are few things that bring out our inner Mama Bear like watching our children face the inevitable message, You’re Not Quite Good Enough. When a child is snubbed, it can bring up old feelings of rejection for us, but if we’re responding from our own hurt feelings it’s hard to be helpful.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a set of strategies aimed at accepting it, facing it, and indeed, seeing rejection as an opportunity to grab the lemons and make lemonade. So take these suggestions out for a spin, and maybe the next time the Sorry — Not You monster comes to call, you can help soothe the pain.

Don’t rush in too fast to save the day. Sit back for awhile and see if your kiddo needs you. When his fellow preschooler doesn’t invite him to the birthday party, hold back before running screaming to the phone to call the little creature’s mom and ask ‘why?’ Who’s feelings are hurt, your kiddo’s or yours? Let it settle. Then make other plans.

Be an example. Offer a few stories from your own childhood (massaging the details is A-OK) to illustrate how not being chosen isn’t the end of the world. Something like this …Oh, sweetie, I know you feel sad that Josh didn’t want to play with you in the block corner today. When I was little I was best friends with Mikey, the boy who lived on the other side of the fence at Grammy’s house. Then one day, a new boy moved in on the other side of Mikey’s. His name was Jake, and he was a year older and too cool for the room. From that day on, Mikey only wanted to play with Jake, who thought girls were icky. So after that I started going to the park on the corner to play, and I met Jenny, who’s been my very best pal ever since. Mikey? Oh, years later he asked me out, but I turned him down ’cause I was dating your Dad, who was wayyy cooler … You get the idea.

Help your kiddo brainstorm ways to cope. Go ahead and ask “what can you do to make yourself feel better?” This sends a message that he’s driving the train, and doesn’t have to measure himself against someone else’s standard. Make suggestions that go to his strengths. If he loves to make pipe cleaner sculpture, suggest a pipe cleaner extravaganza and ‘art gallery opening’ in the family room. The idea is to point out and appreciate what he’s good at. Who cares what fill-in-the-blank thinks?

Emphasize that it’s kiddo’s opinion of himself that’s important. When my kids were approaching the ‘tween years I had a mantra I repeated often. “It doesn’t matter what the boys/girls think (fill in the opposite gender), it’s what you think that counts. You’re the one you see when you look in the mirror, and your judgement is what matters”. They make jokes about it now, but I’ll bet if we fast-forward a few years I’ll be hearing them say something similar to their kids. Self-respect is the key.

Remind him to walk a mile in another’s shoes. There have undoubtedly been times when the tables have been turned, and he’s been the rejecter, so help him understand the importance of empathy in making — and keeping — friendships.

Prepare kiddo for the possibility of rejection ahead of time. Whether it’s a team try-out or a school application, there’s always a chance that it won’t work out. And if it doesn’t, it’s not a reflection of your child’s worth. If you communicate this attitude, he’ll have it too. Avoid having your identity tangled up with your child’s “success”. Recipe for disaster.

Point out role models who survived rejection. Use kiddo’s favorites as examples. If he adores J.K. Rowling, tell the story of how long it took to get the first Harry Potter book published. It’s never too early to drive home the concept, don’t ever give up.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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