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Family Life: Why won't other children play with my young son?

My four-year-old son is very upset because some children won't play with him. I spoke to the mothers of the two other children to prompt them to encourage their children to include others, but they were unhelpful.

As my son is so young, it is hard to explain why some people are like that and I have encouraged him to make new friends. Do you have further suggestions that I could try?

The dynamics in a group of children can be, at times, complicated. No more than with groups of adults, many possible factors can underlie the shifting allegiances that form and disintegrate.

Sometimes it is clear that the personality or behaviour of one child has a very positive, or negative, influence on how the group acts.

There is a lot of psychological research about social behaviour in groups and the findings are consistent, especially about scapegoating. Scapegoating refers to the way in which blame and anger gets projected, by a group, on to one member.

Often the scapegoating is unconscious and unintentional. However, by blaming one person for everything 'bad', then the other group members can feel better about themselves.

The saying 'two's company and three's a crowd' is often accurate, because when children form groups it is easy for one child to be scapegoated. It may be that this is what is happening among the group of children that your son was playing with.

Even though your son may have given no cause to be excluded, he could have become the scapegoat in the group. In practice, this means that he may have been the one blamed for a game not working, or a ball getting lost, or for another child getting hurt.

Once he becomes the focus for blame then it may be safer for all the children in the group to choose not to play with him for fear of being 'tainted' and similarly ignored by their peers.

You can try to counteract this by arranging play opportunities with one child at a time separate from any group play. This one-to-one time will hopefully bolster and strengthen his individual friendships with the other children in situations where they won't be influenced by other, more opinionated, peers.

By allowing friendships to develop singly, you allow the other children to get to know him better (and to like him) and so increase his chances of being successfully included in the group when it forms to play on the green or wherever.

It is also the case that group dynamics can shift and change, so the experience that your son is having could be just a temporary phase.

It is okay, also, for you to say something directly to the other children if you notice them acting in mean ways.

Four-year-olds are just moving past the stage of learning to share and to play co-operatively and so they do need adult guidance and direction at times to remind them how to function well as a group.

Having said that, is it also possible that your son may have actively alienated himself from the other children around? It is worth checking that he isn't overly boisterous or aggressive or that he doesn't intentionally hurt or unnecessarily annoy others.

This can sometimes be hard to determine because we all tend to view our own children with rose-tinted glasses. It can be hard to honestly assess how they might frustrate other children.

However, if he is considered too pushy then he might need your help to be more considerate and inclusive of others.

The flip-side of being too aggressive is that children can be too compliant, shy or timid and so get left out because other children think of them as weak or no fun.

Again, thinking about your son in this kind of light won't be a pleasant consideration but is worth doing just in case your son needs some help to be more assertive.

If the exclusion continues even after your efforts to help your son to integrate, or if it intensifies, then you need to approach the parents of the other children again.

This time, however, you are not looking for them to encourage their sons and daughters to include your son, rather you are looking for them to address what is probably a more deliberate bullying in the form of exclusion.

You may have the same unsatisfying response from the parents and they may choose to belittle the issue or to deny their children's roles in the group.

If so then you and your son need to walk away because they, and their children, are unlikely to change their attitude.

If this is the case then your most important job is to continue to support your son's self-esteem so that he can feel confident that there is nothing wrong with him.

I think it is fair to try to explain that some children just behave in mean ways and that they try to blame one child so that nobody blames them for anything that goes wrong. In this way you can reassure your son that it was not his fault that he got singled out.

Do help him to find at least one other friendship (as opposed to leaving him to find new friends on his own). After his experience of being excluded he may not have the confidence to try to approach a potential friend.

If he fears that he will be rejected you may have to assist him, quite practically, by making the initial approaches to another child, either directly or through their parent.

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