I don’t like to look at life as a contest. I especially try to avoid popularity contests because the results are subjective.
However, popularity contests exist everywhere. You need only turn on the TV to see how hooked you get watching celebrities rise and fall. Who’s in? Who’s out? What’s up? What’s down?
The same is true in our school yards, youth sporting clubs and in our own backyards.
No one loses greater in those contests than children who are already pegged to be left out.
Even though we’d like to think that times have changed, the truth is, children with special needs stand out in a crowd of peers.
They are the rejected ones.
The recipients of stares.
The unwelcomed ones.
The unpopular ones.
If a child doesn’t have an obvious physical disability, the child is further shunned, ridiculed, or ostracized in a group of peers simply for being “quirky”.
How can a child, who is perfectly perfect in the eyes of a parent, be so misunderstood and undervalued by a group of children his own age?
How do parents soothe the electrifying sting this brings the entire family when a child is left wondering, “Why don’t they like me?”
We are blessed because our son is oblivious to the fact that others might be excluding him or making fun of him. He doesn’t understand it, and we take such comfort in knowing that he is blissfully living in the moment. Because of this, we don’t experience the pain that some parents do for their “unpopular” child.
It is very difficult to explain to a child why other children don’t invite him to birthday parties. However, parents need to advocate for their child – not by yelling slanderous remarks to those who ignore him, but by gracefully educating them.
I know three things to be true:
1- Children don’t set-out to hurt or bully children with differences. They are simply frightened by the unknown. When a child looks and acts differently from anyone they have ever met, they become afraid. They don’t know what to say or do, so they choose to not do anything at all (or to call them names as a knee-jerk reaction). Don’t take it personally. Don’t label these children as “bad” – they haven’t experienced anything else. It’s your job to teach them. (Don’t expect their parents to as they might be just as nervous from lack of exposure themselves.)
Also, teach your child why others might be calling him names/ leaving them out. Explain that they are not unlovable, but that others are afraid of what they don’t know. Together, you will show them how much people are alike. This knowledge will empower your child and help build his self-esteem in the process.
2- Children learn to accept others when they are given opportunities to interact with all types of people. Men, women, babies, the elderly, and people with disabilities. If children move out of their peer groups and are encouraged to interact with people of all shapes and sizes, acceptance becomes a natural process for them. I encourage you to organize play dates in your home and invite the child’s parents for coffee.
3- One-to-one interactions/ play dates are best. The child with special needs will not be outnumbered and naturally left out if there is only one buddy over at a time. If there are things about your child that you feel might be off-putting for his friend (ie: excessive drooling, the fact that he doesn’t speak or walk, etc.), ask the parents to prepare their child ahead of time. It eliminates the awkward questions that might hurt your child on the spot.
(I share more about how to ease into group activities with a child with special needs here.)
While it’s hard to endure at times, if you keep these key points in mind, you will find that the popularity contest isn’t an issue for your child.
This post is part of Jenipher Lyn’s blog tour for the launch of her new book How Being Stubborn, Depressed and Unpopular Saved My Life. The book is a result of Jenipher’s “doodle dream” – “a super honest, encouraging, vibrant book with the intent to help others [especially teens!] feel less alone in this world.” You can find out more here on her site (which is just oozing with whimsical doodles to brighten your day!) The kindle version can be found on Amazon.