Can Parents Prepare Themselves for the Sting of Rejection -- of Their Children?

Family Matters on 06.12.12
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Photo: Philms / Creative Commons

Alex is at that age, nearing 2 years old, when she's excited to play with other kids. She has a twice-weekly playdate with the 2-year-old that lives across the hall from our apartment. When these two little girls get together, it's an unmitigated pandemonium of happiness: screeches and squeals of joy while they chase each other and jump up and down on the couch. The whole scene reminds me of when Alex met my parents' golden retriever: lots of happy screaming and running, plenty of scratches and bumps and bruises that would normally be a game stopper, except that the game is too fun to give up. In a word, delightful.

Yesterday, we went over to another good friend's house in the neighborhood. The big attraction for me was catching up with my great friend Mary, whom I hadn't seen in a while. The big attraction for Alex was a combination of friendly playtime with another 2-year-old, and a baby pool out on the balcony. This was her idea of a good time. As the pool had been freshly filled with a hose, the water was, I imagine, frigid. The girls were in and out of the pool, in and out. At one stage Alex climbed out of the pool, but her toe caught the edge. She took a spectacular tumble, head over heels, and landed on a hard plastic fish. Mary and I held our breath while Alex regained her composure; we waited for howls and tears. Alex popped her little head up, and smiling, yelled, "Wipe out!"

The Idyllic Day Takes a Downturn

When it was time to go home, Mary suggested the two girls hug. I was interested to see how this would work, as Alex had never hugged someone her own size before. Her dad and I ask for hugs, but it's always when we're holding her; she leans into us and snuggles her head down into our necks and shoulders. Well, her technique remained the same as she went to hug her little friend. She put her head down and leaned into it. Ruh roh.

Two-year-old girls are not built to hold each other's weight. Alex's friend started the backwards walk in order to keep her balance, which meant Alex danced forward, precariously supported, to avoid falling on her face. As her buddy struggled to regain her footing, she ultimately had to shove Alex away so that both girls could avoid crashing to the floor in a heap in what would have been a distinctly un-fun wipeout.

Hello, Momma Bear

Now about the shove. It wasn't mean-spirited; it was a desperate attempt to avoid falling. But in that moment, what my momma-bear eyes saw was my little girl getting pushed away, hard, while she was trying to give a hug. Alex was stunned, but not at all upset. Because the act wasn't one of aggression or rejection, Alex didn't take it personally. But my pet lizard, Shelby, that insecure part of my brain that fears I'm disliked, crumpled into a sad little ball. In a split second, Shelby had transported herself into some otherworldly Land of the Mean Girls, where all children on every playground are shoved violently and excluded from friendships, and all of the caring, motherly love that has ever existed can't penetrate the isolation bubble to save these bullied, defenseless children.

Shelby? Put a lid on it.

Mary and I both scrambled to recover the situation, which frankly, didn't need recovering. I scooped Alex up and asked her for a hug just in case, I don't know, cooties? Mary then asked Alex for a hug. So Alex got to give two more head-down, leaning-into-it hugs. Because you know, Alex needs to feel that her hugs are great, and regardless of their destructive quality, are not deserving of shoves. (Here's your trophy for knocking your friend over! It says 'World's Best Hugger'!) Even though none of this crossed her mind, and this whole thing is all of my issues bubbling to the surface.

When Our Children Hurt

On the walk home, hand-in-hand with my sweet little girl, I had to remind myself that A) nothing bad happened and B) Alex was totally fine and C) yes, some day in the future, she will get emotionally wounded. As painful as it is, if I don't face this fact head on, then I will lose my mind with toxic anticipation and 'what ifs'. Everyone gets snubbed at some point in life. Not everybody likes everybody, and that's alright. She will be okay, because she is loved and she is resilient. She will find her tribe and thrive, even after encountering rejection.

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