Why it's OK for our Children to be Alone

Maria, a mum, talked to me about her daughter’s friendship problems. It sounded as if her daughter was on the bottom of the pecking order amongst a group of highly competitive girls. She was consistently excluded from conversations and parties, and regularly in tears at home. Things climaxed after they ‘Facetimed’ her from a party that she wasn’t invited to.

Her daughter had to decide whether to stay in the group or leave to find friends who would embrace her more willingly. Understandably, she was hesitant to leave her friendship group because she feared the unknown. Would she be accepted elsewhere, or would she be permanently left by herself at lunchtime? This decision required enormous amounts of courage to make.

I was so impressed by the advice that her parents gave her. They consistently reinforced that standing alone was a legitimate option. Her mother explained, ‘We tell our girls that their own company is okay. If they have to ‘lone it’ at lunchtime, that’s fine. My eldest would sometimes go to the library by herself if that was what she needed to do. She knows she will always come home to her family who love her. If our children have had a bad day, we tell them stories about what happened to us at school. That way they know what they are going through happens to everyone.’

This is one of life’s big and brutal concepts: people might choose not to like us.  It is also possible that people might like you for a while and then change their mind. That means it is possible that friends might come and go.  We can’t control people or how they feel or think. Exclusions, hot and cold reactions, and being frozen out are all tactics that children use to communicate ‘we don’t like you.’ 

There have been many men and women from history who consciously chose to ‘stand alone’. They defended deep convictions, beliefs, ideas and dreams. They also chose to stand alone to protect other people. In some ways, it is the most powerful place to stand. It is far better to be alone than compromise who you are. But embracing loneliness takes courage, especially for a young person.

When you ask students to recall a time when they stood alone, they are quick to share their experiences. Young people might stand alone when someone misunderstands them, judges them, rejects them or their ideas, or wants them to do something they are uncomfortable with.  Surprisingly, standing alone is often admired by peers, and being true to yourself is the best response to being rejected by others.

You can think of standing alone like treading water. It’s not ideal in the long term, but in the short term it can be a life saver. It takes some young people longer than others to find a group they belong to. In the meantime, their sense of belonging to themselves and belonging at home is critical. I always say to young people that they are far better off being on their own for a time than compromising who they are. 

I need every child to see a rejection as a temporary position and an opportunity to find true friends. Letting go of who we want a person to be and accepting who they really are is an important first step. If a friend is mean, they are mean. No matter how much we want them to be nice to us, we can’t wish that into being. My advice to any young person who isn’t accepted in a group: move on out of there! 

For more, check out Michelle’s book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up”.  This book will be available in May in all good bookstores and www.michellemitchell.org 

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