There are plenty of situations where a child might need to decline someone’s social offer. Peers may develop crushes that aren’t reciprocated. Someone on their sports team could want to be BFFs, but your kid would rather stick to acquaintance status.
If your little one’s been blessed with natural charisma, dashing good looks (inherited from you, obviously), or a too-cool-for-school attitude, they might turn more heads in their classes than they can handle. That’s right, parents of popular kids have problems, too!
While unwanted romantic and friendly advances from classmates come to mind first, there are times when they may need to reject adults, too: kids may need to decline a relative’s demand to have a playdate with their cousin or an aunt’s unreasonable request to get a bear-hug every time they see her.
Compassionate rejection is also a good lesson to take into their growing pains, as teens start pushing their parents away to challenge authority.
So if you’re not keen on raising a heartbreaker, here’s how to help your kids keep rejection respectful and compassionate:
Question their motives
It’s one thing to reject a friendship because you have nothing in common. It’s another thing if the decision is made out of worry.
Karen Hamill is a Vancouver-based psychotherapist who specializes in child and teen mental health. Hamill says that an anxious kid may refuse to play with another kid because they’re shy or afraid of others. Before teaching them how to decline, it might be worth nudging them to take a chance on a new bond.
Watch: what’s it like being an anxious kid. Story continues below.
“It’s likely in the child’s best interest for them to engage. Often times, they anticipate the worst will happen [on a playdate with someone new],” Hamill told HuffPost Canada. “Then they have the playdate, they get along great, and those worries melt away.”
Explain the impact of ghosting
A child receiving unwanted attention might deal with it by ignoring the giver entirely. Maybe they want to avoid confrontation entirely and hope their silence will give an unspoken answer.
This strategy, which will be familiar to adults as ghosting, can also be done unconsciously. Kids freeze up when they’re anxious because of how their brains process emotional stress, one small-sample study suggests.
If that happens, make sure they know it’s OK not to give an answer immediately, but they should absolutely give a verbal answer to the other party. Leaving someone with a “I need to think about it” without following through can be just as hurtful as silence.
Re-frame rejection as being assertive
As opposed to a straightforward lesson on rejection, Hamill said it’s healthier to teach them how to be assertive about their personal limits and decline graciously.
One way to do this is to model assertiveness yourself. Adults are guilty of delaying hard answers; in order not to come across as arrogant or rude, they may lie about being busy, make a false promise to socialize (let’s face it, you’ll never grab a cup of coffee with the friend you haven’t seen in months), or pretend they’re mulling over a decision.
Hamill cautions against doing this, as it shows kids that giving others false hope and sugar-coating are the best ways to get one’s point across. Instead, she suggests being direct, but kind.
By treating others in your life honestly, your kid will pick up on these communication cues and be able to handle these hard conversations on their own.
It’s all about delivery
Does your teen respond to a confession of love with snide laughter? Or are they listening carefully and making amiable eye contact?
These questions Hamill raises illustrate the importance of turning someone down respectfully.
The one getting shot down is more likely to accept the refusal if the message is delivered with “friendly confidence,” she said.
Coach your kid or teen on speaking with positive intent, using words geared to make the listener feel like their feelings are valid, but not necessarily reciprocated.
“Open body language, a friendly tone, and a smile can all soften the social refusal,” she said, adding that phrases like, “No, thank you” can help politely but firmly state their position.
Don’t give a reason
When caught off-guard by a sudden invitation, it can be easy to blurt out whatever’s on your mind. But not everyone will take, “I don’t like you because you’re pushy” or “I don’t want to hang out because you’re boring” particularly well.
Some reasons hurt more than others. Rejection hurts deeper when the reason given is because someone else was chosen, a Cornell University study found. Hamill advises parents to tell their kids they should avoid telling someone the details behind their decision.
“If pushed, they can say something neutral like, ‘I don’t think we’re a good fit,’” she said.
Tell them to be tactful about where they respond
Relationship expert Dr. Gary Brown told Elite Daily that the worst place to reject someone is in public, which can be a challenge for kids to follow when most of their time is supervised.
Having adults around at their age shouldn’t be a problem when turning down another adult or a fellow peer, as the child getting declined may not be as sensitive in those settings.
However, the child getting declined would likely feel embarrassed if many of their peers were watching.
A Spanish study on schoolyard rejection found that kids would ostracize other kids whose bad behaviour affected others. To avoid anyone turning into outcasts, encourage choosing a place where one’s entire class isn’t paying attention. In the middle of a school assembly or over the P.A. system are probably no-gos.
Urge kindness with a spine
While kindness is key, kids should know they have no responsibility over how someone else reacts. As considerate as they can be, those rejected may cry, get angry, or become withdrawn. Previous bonds might be tested and friendships can fade.
For some kids, rejection will be tricky territory to navigate. Girls may have a hard time rejecting boys, as the latter may be socialized to retaliate; aggressive, toxic masculinity starts young.
For these situations, emphasize that kindness doesn’t have to be spineless. They should know that being treated disrespectfully is never OK and if their boundaries aren’t respected, a trusted grown-up should be turned to.
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