Girl being left out

A ten-year-old girl came to me with tears in her eyes. She was sad and frustrated and couldn’t understand why her “former best friend” left her out at recess that day. To hear this little girl tell her version of events, her friend iced her out of a new club she formed with their peer group. Not only that, the other girl teased her in the classroom to get a laugh from the kids around her. It’s a heartbreaking story to hear, and yet I hear some version of this over and over again from many kids.

When we talked more about the circumstances leading up to the event, new information emerged. My client, as it turned out, left that other girl out of a big weekend outing just weeks before. She felt hurt and excluded, so she responded by hurting and excluding.

Relational Aggression

This story took place almost a decade ago, but similar stories play out with young children every single week. Exclusion is an example of relational aggression, which is defined as behavior that intends to harm others by damaging or manipulating their peer relationships. This insidious form of bullying can be hard to detect but causes significant psychological stress for kids. Other acts of relational aggression include gossiping, rumor spreading, alliance building and public humiliation.

Survey results from The Ophelia Project, a national non-profit dedicated to addressing relational aggression through systemic change in social culture, show that 48 percent of students are regularly exposed to relational aggression and that students age 11 to 15 are exposed to 33 acts of relational aggression during any given week.

While many bully prevention programs aim to put an end to negative behaviors in the classroom setting, teaching kids prosocial behaviors empowers them to make positive choices both in school and out in the world. It’s not enough to teach kids what not to do; we also have to teach them what to do to promote kindness and compassion among their peers.

The good news is that not only is kindness contagious, but it also results in greater happiness and increased friendships. A study published in the journal PLOS One followed a group of 400 9-to-11-year-old students in elementary schools in Vancouver. The kids were split into two groups. One group was asked to track the pleasant places they visited while the other was asked to perform acts of kindness. After four weeks, both groups reported higher levels of happiness, but the kindness group also reported greater acceptance from their peers. Simple acts of kindness resulted in both greater overall happiness and more friendships in the classroom. That’s a win-win.

Empower Your Child

The question I hear more often than not is not, “How can I raise a kind kid” but “What do I do when my kid is excluded?” It’s heartbreaking to hear that your child is on the receiving end of any kind of relational aggression, but to think that your child might be alone and upset at school each day can be devastating. It’s natural to want to “fix” the problem. The thing is … fixing rarely fixes.

The best thing parents can do is to empower kids to act as “includers.” When we instill kids with prosocial skills, we spread kindness and compassion. Follow these steps to teach your kids to include others.

  1. Listen and empathize. It can be very difficult to sit back and listen when a child tells a story of being excluded, humiliated or otherwise hurt at school, but listening and empathizing are the two best things you can do. While it might be tempting to respond, “What a terrible friend!” what your child actually needs to hear is, “That sounds terrible. You must feel so upset right now.” When we empathize with our kids, we teach them to do the same for others. Empathetic kids can create giant ripples of kindness in this world. All we have to do is be there for them and let them work through their emotions.
  2. Be an “includer.” Ever stare at your phone to avoid social interaction when you’re just not up for it or you don’t know anyone in the room? You’re not alone. Technology makes it easy to avoid uncomfortable situations, but using technology to avoid social interactions sends mixed messages to our kids. If we want our kids to learn to reach out to others and include new people (or people they wouldn’t otherwise sit with), we need to do the same. Show your kids how to make new friends by introducing yourself to new people and striking up conversations with people they don’t know.
  3. Look for someone who needs a friend. It’s normal for kids to get caught up in their usual groups. Young children like routine and tend to sit at the same table at lunch or play with the same groups at recess, but this can be limiting. Teach your child to scan the room (or field) to look for someone who might need a friend. Practice ways to invite a new kid into the group or ask others to join a game. When kids practice these skills at home, they are better able to use them out in the world.
  4. Talk about unintentional exclusion. Sometimes kids exclude others without intent to harm. In the case of my client above, she didn’t invite that other girl to the weekend outing because it involved roller coasters and she knew the girl didn’t like roller coasters. She meant to protect her friend, but in planning a secret outing with others she actually caused more harm than good. Talk to your kids about what it means to exclude and how they can include others. Ask your kids to draw connections between being excluded and possible negative emotions and between being included and possible positive emotions.Open and honest communication helps kids work through feelings and emotions. It also increases empathy and compassion. Host a weekly family meeting to talk about the good, the bad and the in-between. In helping our children process emotions, we show them that kindness really does count.

There is no one quick, easy answer to relational aggression. Neither you nor your child can control how other children act. What you can work on is how your child responds to relational aggression or exclusion and how your child can take the lead to be an “includer” of other children.

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  • sunny S

    A great way for parents to teach this is to model it themselves which I guess goes along with number 2 pretty much. Many people are quick to judge. Some may seem unapproachable because they may be quiet or shy and maybe suffering from social anxiety which is quite real and harder to deal with than it sounds. I have social anxiety myself but I still try to model inclusion for my 4 year old son. I always am terrified ill say something silly and stupid which I feel like I do. I attend field trips with my son and I am always friendly, I try to smile and say hi to others and maybe make small talk as many do but I also always end up being the one excluded and alone anywhere I go no matter what. I dont smell or dress sloppy, never wronged anyone.. so i don’t know what it is.
    Adults need to do more than just talk to their children about it, they need to model it fully and work on it themselves.. No one is perfect but I feel many who agree with this or teach it are not modeling it, if so the world would be a much happier and friendlier place to live in.

  • Troy

    I wish this had been around during my bullied years of public school that left me isolated and introverted. Just one person that had known this info and reached out to me could’ve changed my whole life..

  • Suz

    My daughter does much better playing with just a few friends, she takes after me in that area. I see when I go to bday parties that she tends to shy away and just follow the crowd, but when she has just a few friends around at the park or our house, she’s very talkative and chatty. I want her to be inclusive and meet as many people as she can, but in the end hope she has a few solid friends she can grow up with.

    • Lisa

      My son is very much an introvert… but my daughter can be either. I was really proud of her recently to learn that she had just met someone because she saw the young lady sitting alone at lunch. Turns out she had just transferred in from the rival HS that is about five miles away (due to unfortunate family circumstances).

  • Bonnie

    I have said this same thing over and over and over. It is not enough to stop bullying because many times being excluded is just as painful. I have a son who was always excluded and never got invited to the birthday parties. I finally asked the teacher to please quietly tuck invitations into book bags instead of letting kids hand them out in class so my son was not constantly coming home sad because he had been left out again. I asked teachers to encourage group activities on the playground like kickball. It requires very little skill. It’s a sport that almost any child can do and do well. My son would tell me how the other kids would play and he would just sit on the swing by himself. He was not a bad child but he was very socially awkward and craved a friend so badly. I wish more people understood that this is as important as controlling bullying. Thank you for such a well written article.

  • Blehblah

    At last an article on bullying that details exclusion. Sadly kids won’t ‘include’ those who have been excluded, if they do then it won’t last long as then they do are added to the bully’s list and excluded themselves.


    “ulghh don’t sit next to her she’s a lesbian, oh you must be a lesbian too”

    “why are you having lunch with her she’s got nits, you’ve got nits too now”

    Then the ‘includer’ has to battle to be included themselves, it’s a vicious circle.

  • Barton Wood

    I was recently working with an author who wrote a book that parents should read with their kids. Linda Keefe had recently become a grandmother and started noticing the news stories about childhood anger, bullying and the lack of respect displayed by youths around the country. This made her start thinking about ways that she could help parent teach characteristics like abiding by the rules, believing in yourself, and be courteous towards others. So, she decided to write a book that could make a difference. “The ABC’s of Niceness” incorporates the 26 letters of the alphabet into a poem. Each letter is beautifully illustrated in a whimsically childlike style and includes words or phrases that correspond with each letter. This is a wonderful teaching tool that can be supported with a matching poster and/or a flashcard game. I have seen this program on Amazon or her website They are wonderful gifts and surprisingly teachers around the country have been buying them for their classrooms. She’s trying to make a difference one child at a time.

  • Valerie Gill

    My son chose to no longer hang out with a boy in his class because said boy was being a bully to other kids. As a result of excluding, the bully and his entourage targeted my son, punching and kicking him while pinning him down. I don’t condone violence, but thankfully, my son was able to hold his own and was able to fight back because he could have been seriously hurt. Hopefully they will leave him alone now. But what if he wasn’t able to stand up for himself? How else could he have left that group of bullies without the risk of getting beat up? These are grade oner’s!