Helping Your Toddler Navigate Peer Rejection and Cultivate Social Skills

As a parent, it can be overwhelming, confusing, and maddening when you observe your young child being rejected. You may not know how to respond if your toddler pushes another child at the park, or if your child tells you about a friend who says he no longer wants to play with them. Change in a child’s preference of playmate is a normal part of childhood, and yet young kids 

don’t often have sophisticated language skills to express these changing desires. While this is a tricky situation for parents to navigate, they offer a unique opportunity for building your child’s resilience and fostering their assertiveness skills, perspective taking, and empathy.

two toddlers fighting over a toy

What Should I Do When Another Toddler Rejects My Child?

Seeing your child be rejected or teased can certainly evoke strong feelings. When your child is rejected, you may find yourself jumping into a “protector” mode. While this makes sense given our biological drive to keep our children safe, we also want to teach our children that a) peer rejection happens; and b) they can handle it.

Instead of jumping into protective parent mode, first try taking a deep breath and grounding yourself. When you do, you’ll activate the thinking and logical parts of the brain and will be in a position to support your child. If your little one is having trouble expressing what they need, take an educated guess (“ouch, that may have hurt your feelings. Let’s go for a walk to regroup”). 

Try validating your child’s feelings, using gentle touch if that is something they typically respond well to, and speaking in a calm, neutral tone to co-regulate with your child and help them begin to calm down. 

Helping Your Child Build Empathy Towards Others 

Next comes the “debrief.” After the heat of the moment has passed, talk to your child about what occurred earlier that day or even the day before. Try to help them create a narrative–what happened, then what happened next, then what happened after that? Focus on narration of what you’re hearing rather than interpretation. In doing so, you can begin to teach your child how conflicts unfold, while also finding ways to connect to your child’s emotional experience – “That sounds like it didn’t feel good for you.”  

Then, activate and model curiosity – “I wonder what was going on for them, I wonder what was happening for this kid when that happened.” By asking questions about the other person’s experience, we help our kids grasp the idea of context and develop a sense of curiosity about another’s experience, which are two building blocks of empathy. 

As hard as it may be, try to approach the situation without engaging in black-and-white thinking. This means modeling and teaching your child to view the situation in shades of gray. Ask your child to consider how the rejector or aggressor may have felt– maybe she used a bad word because she was upset and didn’t have other words to use, or maybe because she isn’t feeling so well today. You can support your child while being empathic to the other child’s experiences. 

Through empathy, we help kids to avoid the trap of setting another person up as a villain, which has the potential to lead to self-shame when our kids inevitably exhibit similar behaviors in the future. As we said, rejection is a developmentally normal part of childhood. Our job as parents is to help our kids learn to express their needs in a kinder way, 

3 little girls holding hands and spinning in a circle

What Is The Best Way to Respond When It’s My Child Being The Aggressor 

If our child is the aggressor, we still want to encourage perspective taking. This means helping your child consider how their actions may have impacted the other person – “what do you think it was like for her when you ripped her artwork?”

Often, children are rejecting because they lack the skills to express their wants and needs in a more adaptive way. Try teaching your child alternative strategies, including using an “I Feel statement.”  I feel mad when you cut me in line, and I’d like to take turns – and implement coping strategies to de-escalate. Practice these skills during calm moments so that your child is better able to access them in the heat of the moment. Some children may benefit from verbal prompts or visual diagrams of the different tools to use. This is the beginning of the important process of teaching your child inhibition skills.

Most importantly, do your best to avoid shaming your child. Again, peer rejection is developmentally appropriate–especially for little ones. Send the message to your child that her choices don’t define her– yes, she was mean to her friend, but that doesn’t mean she is a bad kid. Look out for your knee jerk reaction to punish or judge; instead, speak with your child to understand what was going on for her before, during, and after the incident. The more your child feels heard, the more receptive she will be learning alternative strategies to express feelings.

How Can I Help My Young Child Learn to Set Boundaries?

Setting and maintaining boundaries are closely related to peer rejection. Young children often need support in learning how to set boundaries in appropriate ways. When children have the words to express their wants and needs, aggressive behavior often decreases. Further, when children are assertive, they are less likely to be the target of teasing or rejection.

Toddlerhood is the perfect time to begin to teach your little one how to set boundaries. Practice different scenarios–what would you say if someone asks you to share and you don’t want to, or if someone is standing too close to you? Encourage your child to practice assertiveness in the home– this means allowing them to say “no” sometimes. And model your own boundary-setting. We want to teach children that setting boundaries is okay.

Resources For Parents To Help Their Child When Other Kids Are Mean To Them

Reading books with your child is a great way to teach them these skills and can be an easy conversation starting. The Mouse, The Monster and Me: Assertiveness For Young People and Felix Stands Tall are both excellent books about assertiveness and setting boundaries. 

If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion on peer rejection, including additional strategies for supporting your child as they manage peer relationships, navigate peer rejection, and tips for how we can build our children’s coping skills, listen to Dr. Sarah Bren and Dr. Emily Upshur’s podcast episodes for parents of toddlers or young children.
And if you would like a more personalized level of support, click here to set up a consultation call to learn how one of our clinicians at Upshur Bren Psychology Group can help you with this or any other parenting challenge you are struggling to navigate.

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