Research now shows that feelings of exclusion are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain. It makes sense. Human beings have always been deeply dependent on one another to survive, and our relationships are more essential to our well-being than achievement or professional success.
That’s why our brains prioritize the threat of being cast out or rejected as much as the threat of physical danger. In one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at how our brains process exclusion, participants played a game of catch on a screen with two other players they knew weren’t real people, yet they still cared deeply about the extent to which they were included. In fact, participants who were ostracized reported “lower levels of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence.”
So for a child who worries about not belonging or about not finding friends in a new environment, the sticks and stones speech rings especially hollow.
“It’s very alienating when you’re in pain to have someone say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, that’s no big deal,’ ” says Julie King, co-author, with Joanna Faber, of “How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.” Often, King says, parents may say things like this because they are afraid that if they validate their child’s negative feelings it will only exacerbate the worries. But the reverse is true.
“Say your child comes home and says about their best friend, ‘Becky hates me: She said she wants to sit with Olivia, not me,’ ” Faber says. “You want to jump in and say, ‘Of course she doesn’t hate you; she’s been your friend since kindergarten!’ or dive in with advice — 'why don’t you ask another friend to sit next to you?’ ” But when someone is in the throes of distress, Faber says, the first thing they need to know is that they’re understood.
Imagine what you would want in the same situation. Say you came home after a long day and were telling a friend or your partner that you got undercut in a meeting by a colleague you considered a friend, and they said, “Well, why don’t you just get a new work friend?” or “Don’t worry about it; that’s nothing.” Those responses would go over about as well with children as they would with adults.
It’s better to clamp down on the rationalizing and advice-giving and simply acknowledge the child’s feelings. Faber and King suggest something like, “Wow, that sounds really upsetting," or “That’s not what you expect from a friend. You’d like her to be more considerate of your feelings.” Sometimes just reflecting back what they’ve told you — “Something Becky did really made you mad. You don’t like to be treated that way” — signals to your child that they’re being heard.
If you think it will be hard to say anything without shifting into advice/minimization mode, just try nodding and making a sympathetic noise.
Once you acknowledge their feelings, you open up a space for your child to share more about what happened, which might lead to a discussion of what they can do about it tomorrow. Or it may be enough just to express their sadness. Let your child take the lead.
When the initial storm is over, it can be powerful to share a similar story from when you were growing up. Like many things in parenting, it’s about timing. Don’t leap in with, “Well let me tell you what happened to me!” when your child is first choking out their tale of woe. Faber recommends waiting until it feels as if your child is ready to hear you. This will vary depending on the child and the situation, but parents can trust their instincts to sense when the time is right.
Sharing stories from your own childhood where you talk about a struggle you had, how you dealt with it, and how it got better, can help normalize what your child is going through. “It makes them realize they aren’t the only one to feel this way,” says Gregory M. Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford whose research includes psychological interventions designed to increase social belonging. When children hear that parents faced similar challenges, they start to internalize that their anxiety about making friends or belonging is common, and, most important, that it gets better.
With older kids who might roll their eyes at your stories, Walton suggests turning to books. Literature, especially children’s and young adult fiction, is filled with journeys of belonging. Try “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the novels of Judy Blume and Charles Dickens, and the Harry Potter series, to name a few. Walton suggests reading the books together and talking about the characters. “Ask questions about the struggles the characters face: ‘Why do you think that’s normal? Is it pretty hard to go to a new school?’ ”
While most children tend to worry about belonging, those who are part of a group that’s historically faced prejudice often feel it more acutely. “There’s a whole body of work that explores the kinds of threats people experience based on their identity,” Walton says. “Stereotypes and history, patterns and interactions — these things imply what kind of person can belong in the space. People are trying to make sense of that. A really important part of belonging is that it’s not just in the head.”
One of the reasons it’s so important to cultivate a sense of belonging in children, explains Walton, is because when kids feel like they are working with others, and that others see them as partners, they are more motivated to keep at a task. This has been demonstrated in small studies of preschoolers as young as four.
To help nurture a feeling of belonging, remember that your relationship with your child is their bedrock, the foundation they use to push off into the world. “Kids need positive relationships with other adults, especially parents,” says Walton. “It’s totally detrimental [to kids] to put that relationship at risk.”
Rather, let them know that no matter what, there is a place they will always be loved and accepted. Delight in them. As a parent, it’s one of the most important things you can do, both for your child’s well-being and for their ability to achieve.
Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. She is working on a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom. Find her online at annanordberg.com.