The impact of rejection: What if kids don't fit in?

Sometimes I feel like I don't quite fit in by artgeekWe’ve all heard the saying “Opposites attract.” When it comes to friendship, though, researchers believe that similarity is an important factor in determining who becomes, and remains, friends. People who are considered to be different from the group are less likely to be popular, and may be the target of bullies. Kids with social problems are also more likely to have academic difficulties as well. A study published in Psychology in the Schools looked at whether kids who are perceived to be different are more likely to be rejected, and examined some of the possible outcomes of that rejection.

Researchers first interviewed elementary school students about what made someone “strange” or “weird.” Interestingly, it wasn’t appearance or clothing that topped the list (both of these were the first things I thought of when considering what an elementary school student might consider to be unusual). Class clowns beware: 35% of the “weird” behaviours were related to failed attempts at humour! Pretending to fall down, making faces, speaking in a “funny” voice, making odd noises, or telling strange jokes were behaviours that kids perceived as being unusual. Other responses covered a wide gamut: appearance, clothing, verbal or academic difficulties, disruptive behaviour, aggression, and disobedience were all described as reasons that someone might be considered weird.

When the researchers looked at the impact of being unusual (they called it “atypicality”), they found that kids who were described as odd by their classmates were more likely to be rejected and victimized. School achievement was lower as well. Unusual boys who were rejected and victimized felt lonelier in the long run. For both boys and girls, being unusual led to victimization and rejection, which then led to increased anxiety about social situations.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, being considered “odd” by classmates is linked to being bullied, being rejected, achieving lower grades, feeling lonely (for boys), and symptoms of social anxiety. What does this mean for parents? Here are a few things that come to mind:

  1. It might be reassuring to parents that kids with unusual interests, or differences in appearance, accent, or abilities, were described as odd by a less than 10% of students.
  2. The biggest categories of behaviours that made elementary school kids think someone was “weird” were failed attempts at humour and inappropriate behaviour in the classroom or on the playground. If your child frequently engages in these kinds of things, it might be worth talking to teachers about how he or she is “fitting in” with classmates.
  3. If inappropriate behaviours (aggression, defiance, etc.) are the problem, then it might be valuable to develop some kind of a behaviour plan to address them sooner rather than later. Counselling might be helpful in this regard; some community agencies even offer specific social skills training groups for children who have trouble in this area.
  4. Kids who try (but fail) to take on the role of the class clown might benefit from learning when and what kind of jokes are appropriate.
  5. As we discussed in this week’s episode of The Family Anatomy Podcast, encouraging diversity in friendship groups can be helpful – hopefully your child can find a group where he or she isn’t considered to be “atypical!”

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