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By Nathan Lumbatis, Ed.S, LPC
At three years old, Daniel loved to play with toy trucks. Seeing that the church nursery had an entire basketful, he scrambled out of his mother’s arms to get to them as she was dropping him off with the workers. “I see he found what he wanted,” she laughed, watching him make a bee-line toward the basket. But, as Daniel reached in to pull out a shiny blue truck, another boy knocked him over and took his toy.
Marcy was the smartest girl in her classroom. But most of her classmates weren’t impressed with her grades. To them, she was the overweight nerd who was the teacher’s pet. She also happened to be the perfect target when her class played dodgeball in P.E. Sure, she had friends, but not the kind that would make her cool enough to avoid ridicule and bullying.
Katherine recently transferred to a new high school. As she walked into her new homeroom class for the first time, everyone seemed to be seated according to their cliques: the jocks and preps on one side, the skaters on the other, and a few “Emo” kids in the back. She took the only open seat at the front and slipped self-consciously into her chair. She soon discovered every other class, the lunch room, and the bus were similarly divided. The pressure to adopt an identity was mounting.
Vince and his supervisor, Matt, seemed to have a relationship built upon mutual respect. But since their simultaneous promotions, their relationship seemed strained. Vince even felt, on occasion, that Matt was purposefully targeting him for ridicule through memos and policy-changes. His recent performance evaluation, too, seemed extremely critical. Maybe the employees’ preference for Vince as their supervisor had leaked out of the department. Or maybe Matt didn’t like the policy changes Vince had made. Whatever the reason, Vince knew if he wanted to keep his job, he’d better focus on making Matt happy.
I initially wanted to write this column to give advice for parents helping their children deal with bullying and cliques. Initially, I planned on throwing out typical suggestions, but then I realized that most of the advice I was taught to offer parents and children sounded basic, like something you’d hear in an after-school special or read in a Department of Education pamphlet. You know the type:
If you’re being bullied:
1) Talk to an adult about what happened so you don’t feel alone.
Stick with a group of friends so you don’t get singled out.
Defend yourself if you are in danger, but don’t use physical force unless you have to.
Ignore the bully and walk away.
Tell your parents and teachers so they can take action.
If you’re having trouble fitting in:
Talk to an adult you trust.
Don’t allow yourself to feel isolated just because one group doesn’t accept you.
Make a list of everyone in your life that supports you.
Make sure you’re not trying to change who you are just to fit in; love the person God made you to be.
As I thought back on clients who had experienced bullying or difficulty fitting in, I realized that this type of advice was necessary, but the more complex problem was how to deal with the emotional fall-out. Otherwise, the insecurity caused by the conflict had a nasty habit of returning in some other form throughout their life. Why? Because the heart of the problem is rejection, and how we handle it, and that, as illustrated in the vignettes above, is something that can surface no matter our age.
Rejection seems more of a problem during the school years because children and teenagers rarely have the authority to make choices to withdraw from situations in which they are being bullied or feeling pressured by cliques. As adults, however, we usually have the means to change our situations: we can switch churches, join a new gym, look for a new job, or join a different Bunko group if we don’t feel welcome. So, when our children come to us complaining about their social struggles, it can be easy to offer them a simplistic solution that doesn’t address the root problem at all. I have often heard a parent say, for instance, “Just punch him back. That’ll teach him.” Or, “That’s how girls are, honey. Besides, you don’t need their approval anyway. Just be yourself.” And, “Just walk away and tell the teacher; she’ll fix it.”
But kids and teenagers are quick to tell you these things don’t really help with their feelings of rejection and the resulting depression. Nor, if we were honest with ourselves, would these answers work for us as adults. We know full well how hard it would be to walk away from someone who was defaming us in public. If we were expelled from or gossiped about in a social circle, such as church, the country club, a Bible study, etc., merely telling ourselves that we don’t need those people does nothing to heal the hurt.
In truth, adults are often no better at resolving conflict and healing from rejection because most of us never learned how as children. Want evidence? Have you or any other adult you’ve known ever worried about an acquaintance’s opinion, felt snubbed when an invitation didn’t arrive, wondered how someone would interpret something said in a conversation, or felt nervous about interacting with a belligerent peer at work or church? Of course you have. We all have experienced and fear rejection, and if we’re to help our children work through a complex issue of the heart, we need to know how to do it ourselves. Consider the following as a guide for working through rejection, whether it be for yourself or your child:
First: Understand that healing from rejection is not something you can fix overnight. Rather, it’s a process which begins by understanding what the negative effects of rejection are: fearing and idolizing others. This is partially due to Satan twisting our God-given desire to be in fellowship with others and partially due to our human tendency to highly value that which we don’t have (i.e., acceptance). God, in fact, always portrays us as either fearing God or man; there is no middle ground. For instance: Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Jeremiah 17: 5-6 states, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is he who trusts in man…whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.’” Essentially, we must discern whether or not this fear/idolatry is influencing our relationship to our peers.
Second: Remind yourself or your children of God’s truth. You have to contrast the enemy’s lies with the Truth of God so that you can begin countering the fearful, self-doubting, obsessive thoughts often accompanying rejection. A simple way to do this is to pick various verses and meditate upon/discuss them daily. Here are few to get you started:
Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Isaiah 43:4: “You are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you.”
Psalm 27:10: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”
Third: Ask God to clearly define what ways this fear has been manifesting in your lives. Are you isolating yourself? Are your children constantly obsessing over how others perceive them? Do you find yourself makings subconscious decisions based on what you perceive other’s opinions to be? Are certain groups of people on your child’s mind all day? Does happiness evade you unless you are accepted by certain people/groups?
Understand that thoughts of this type must be targeted as deceptive and are designed to hijack your mind and fill it with fear. Take these thoughts captive, confess them to God as idolatrous and fearful, and replace them with the Truth you’ve been learning through step two.
Interestingly, this type of obsessive thinking is usually less typical for children but hugely problematic for teens and adults. Children don’t often have the abstract reasoning capabilities to consider what others might be thinking. With the onset of adolescence, however, others’ perceived opinions are consuming. Therefore, if you sense that your children are struggling with rejection, address this problem aggressively before adolescence magnifies the problem by talking daily about their worth resting in God’s acceptance rather than man’s.
Fourth: Take steps to counter any decision or behavior that is based upon this fear of others by making faith choices that are congruent with the Word of God and the counsel of other believers. For children and teens, this may take the form of some of the suggestions mentioned above. For all people, regardless of age, it will include responding to “persecutors” in biblical ways by praying for them, looking for opportunities to do good to them, and choosing to forgive. It may also require confronting someone alone or with witnesses present, or even making a decision to cut ties with someone who has become an idol. The emphasis here is to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In summary, an identity based on God’s unconditional acceptance rather than peer acceptance is crucial for anyone dealing with the rejection of others. But it can’t be learned and appropriated over night. It must be discussed, taught, practiced, and modeled over time. On that foundation it is much easier to heal from rejection, but without it, any suggestion or attempt will only be masking an underlying fearfulness.