Monday 21 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can my daughter recover from exclusion

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter is in second year in secondary school. She's a bright, kind, good-looking but shy and sensitive girl who just cannot make friends. She's funny and confident when she's with family but we can see her retreat, as soon as she nears her school or her peers. She had buckets of confidence when she was younger but being excluded by her friends both in school and at after-school activities hit her hard and left her very down. She now absolutely refuses to join any clubs or groups and is very isolated. Any advice would be gratefully appreciated.

David replies: Exclusion is such a difficult experience for any child to navigate. At the outset, most children are simply bewildered by being left out, unable to understand why this is happening. Also, because exclusion can happen suddenly, it takes time before a child even realises that they may now be permanently outside the group.

As the surprise at being left out fades away, it is usually replaced by an assumption that the child herself, or himself, must have done something to cause their friends to push them aside. The child assumes that there must be something wrong with them to make their friends stop liking them.

This is the reason that exclusion is so devastating for a child. They can quickly develop a strong belief that they are at fault and this strips away their self-esteem, often also depleting their self-confidence. Being excluded gives a strong message to a child that they must be unlikeable or unlovable. Feeling lovable is essential to strong self-esteem.

Perhaps for your daughter this has become a very negative cycle, where her low self-esteem may then get in the way of developing new friendships, further strengthening her belief that she can't make friends and that nobody could like her, and further undermining her self-esteem.

The other big difficulty with being deliberately left out by your friends is that it is almost impossible for a child to counter the exclusion. Usually they don't even have an opportunity to ask why they are being left out. Even if they have opportunity they may not have the confidence to find out.

For most children, talking directly about the exclusion, may increase their fears of discovering that their belief that they are unlikeable will be confirmed by their former friends.

For this reason, it is critical that parents, teachers, sports coaches or anyone in charge of the group of children, get involved. In an ideal world, the adults at school or at the various extra-curricular activities could have intervened, had they noticed, to try get her friends to be inclusive again.

If you think about how we address this with much younger children, on a play-date for example, we simply tell the group that everyone must be let play and everyone must play together. We just don't let the group scapegoat or exclude one member.

We need to adopt the same approach even when children are older.

Since the exclusion of your daughter happened years ago, the opportunity to do this with her former friends has passed. Your focus now needs to be on helping your daughter to re-build her self-esteem. She also needs an opportunity to find a new friend or friends. This challenge may feel like a bit of a catch 22 situation for her.

Perhaps she feels too nervous and unsure of herself to take part in things, and yet she cannot build up her social confidence until she takes part in things and realises that not only can she cope, but that she can flourish too.

So, perhaps for your daughter, a period of therapy, focused on her experiences of being excluded and also on how she can now rebuild her self-esteem, might give her the resilience to take the risk of trying to make new friends.

Your understanding of the dilemmas she faces and the fears she may have, along with gentle, but firm, encouragement might give her the impetus to get back into the social fray.

If you can think of someone who might go along with her (a cousin, a family friend or such like) that could help ease those initial steps back into a group, it could also reduce the risk she may feel she is taking.

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