The Pain of Watching a Child Stand Alone
It is normal for pre-teens and teens to experience a rollercoaster ride of friendship highs and lows as they search for their place in the world. This journey can be rockier for some children than others. I believe the reason our hearts bleed so much for children who struggle with friendships is that we know how important belonging is to them and for them. Belonging inside of the home is one thing, but belonging outside of the home is also essential.
I want to acknowledge three big concerns (flat out fears!) that almost all parents have:
They fear their child’s feelings getting hurt.
They fear their child being excluded.
They fear their child will miss out on opportunities.
Perhaps these fears drive our children too.
Over the course of my career I have witnessed young people push themselves to extraordinary lengths to fit into a group. My alarm bells always ring when young people get fixated on being in a particular friendship group or with a particular friend. I hear statements like, ‘I just want to be a part of THAT group’ or ‘I just want to be friends with THAT person.’ Our children have to understand that happiness isn’t found in THAT group, it is found in the RIGHT group for them. It’s our job to help them develop a radar for what the group should look and feel like.
Maria recently 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 ‘Face-timed 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.
I was so impressed by how her parents handled the situation. 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 when that happened to us at school. That way they know what they are going through happens to everyone.’
I’d so important that we take the time to normalise standing alone. 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 stand 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 usually the best response to being rejected by others.
Standing alone is 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. Young people are far better off being on their own than compromising who they are.
This is one of life’s big and brutal concepts: people might choose not to like us. OUCH! And yes, this genuinely hurts. It’s also possible that people might like us for a while and then change their mind. In other words, it’s possible that friends may come and go.
The important thing to remember is that we can’t control how other people feel or think. We are not the boss of other people. We are only the boss of ourselves. If someone is consistently mean, we have to accept that they’re being mean. Regardless of how much we want them to be nice to us, we can’t force that to happen. Letting go of who we want a person to be and accepting who they really are is an important first step.
I need every child to see a rejection as a temporary position and an opportunity to find true friends. I want them to know that there IS a friendship group waiting for them. But they often can’t find new friends while they are hanging onto people who don’t value them. 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 is available in all good bookstores, Big W and www.michellemitchell.org It is suitable for parents of children aged 6 - 17, and has a school issues focus.
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