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Social connection is important for a child's development. But what happens when a kid is being left out? Here's how to navigate this tricky situation and help your little one build a healthy social life.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
March 25, 2021
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An illustration of a little boy being ignored by two other children.
Credit: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Dear Mom of Left Out Kid,

First of all, adults should never hold a 2-year-old responsible for any of their actions! Their brains have close to zero understanding of right and wrong, and accidents are synonymous with toddlers. It seems like a big over-reaction to an incident two years ago, and a parent who lashes out verbally to another parent's apologies has some other issues to work on. It goes against "parent code" that we are all doing our best and assuming everyone else is too!

Unfortunately, it sounds like this impression from one highly reactive parent has somehow trickled down to the group of neighborhood kids. Based on your report, the messaging about your son has blown up way past reality or evidence, and should be addressed for the sake of his early social life.

Start with the Adults

Could you enlist other parents to help? Parents modeling acceptance and inclusion means their children are more likely to do the same. Share your concerns about your son being labeled in the neighborhood, and see if there are opportunities for him to build relationships in smaller social settings, like one-on-one playdates or smaller groups. This can give the other children their own experiences with him as kind and fun, which should help fade out the alternative, erroneous messaging of being a "mean kid."

I have learned as a parent how important my relationships are with other parents as well. I not only have become friends with others because our children made friends first, but I notice wanting to push my children to certain friendships when I really like the parents! Of course, our social lives should not depend on our children, but we can leverage our own social strengths to help our children.

Besides the one helicopter mom, how do you connect with the other neighborhood parents? Do you see opportunities with neighbors you like for your children to play together? Alternatively, do you have a hard time yourself feeling part of the neighborhood group? Neighborhoods can have their own cultures, and not everyone feels like a fit. Personally, I have experienced both feeling like a misfit in our community, and completely connected, and it did affect where we looked for our young children's friendships.

Expand Your Kid's Social Circle

Although your son is still young, you are correct that social interactions play into a child's self-esteem. Feeling included with peers and a sense of belonging are key parts of a child building confidence. The opposite, feeling rejected by peers, negatively affects children, especially as they get older and peer groups become more influential. If the neighborhood children continue to exclude and mislabel your child, it is well worth your time and effort to go outside the neighborhood. Set up playdates with preschool classmates or get him involved in extracurriculars where he can meet more kids.

At this age, you still have a lot of control over your child's social activities, so you can engineer increasing the positive and decreasing the negative. Having more positive social experiences helps counteract the negative, likely benefitting his self-esteem.

Reflect and Observe

With the major caveat that I know very little of your situation, including your child, you may want to take a step back and think about whether there could be more to the story than one incident from two years ago. Are there any ways your child's behavior could be generally misunderstood? In my experience as a parent and child psychologist, children and adults often do not understand behaviors that may be part of differences in neurodevelopment.

For example, children with ADHD can be impulsive with no ill intentions, but it comes off as "mean." I talk with my own kids regularly about children being born with all kinds of different brains, and for some children it is harder to listen to teachers and wait their turns, but it does not mean "bad" or "mean." You took a great step to check in with his teachers, but I have learned that some schools are actually so good at serving individual needs, that they do not see problems that end up more evident later in elementary school classrooms.

Observe his social interactions with as little interference as possible to see how he acts naturally, and how other children respond to him. If you pay close attention during playdates, you may be able to see social behaviors that help you better understand why he has been labeled as "mean" when that is so far from who he is.

The Bottom Line

You are doing everything a child needs from their parent: tuning into his needs, seeing his strengths, and realizing the importance of his social life. It can be painful to do everything in your power, and knowing your power ends where other children's behavior begins. Keep your options and eyes open and I'm confident you and your son will find the way to a fulfilling young social life.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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