It is normal for pre-teens and teens to experience a rollercoaster ride of friendship highs and lows as they search for their place in the world. (Heck, can’t you remember the revolving pecking order in middle school!) But, the friendship experience is definitely more challenging for some than others.
The reason our hearts bleed so much for children who struggle with friendships is that we know how important belonging is to them and for them. Belonging is as essential as food, water and shelter. We need to live and love in communities. Make no mistake about it. Feeling isolated, alone, or picked off will always feel like a life threatening situation.
When I speak in schools about friendships I offer a range of conflict resolution strategies and communication ideas to promote a sense of belonging for all students. However I also emphasis this. At some point in life there is every chance you will be faced with the challenge of standing alone. If you are able to conquer the fear associated with standing alone, it will be your ultimate super power.
Let me explain…
Maria recently talked to me about her daughter’s friendship problems. It sounded as if her daughter was on the bottom of the pecking order amongst a group of highly competitive girls. She was consistently excluded from conversations and parties, and regularly in tears at home. Things climaxed after they ‘Face-timed her’ from a party that she wasn’t invited to.
Her daughter had to decide whether to stay in the group or leave to find friends who would embrace her more willingly. Understandably, she was hesitant to leave her friendship group because she feared the unknown. Would she be accepted elsewhere, or would she be permanently left by herself at lunchtime? This decision required enormous amounts of courage.
I was so impressed by how her parents handled the situation. They consistently reinforced that standing alone was a legitimate option. Her mother explained, ‘We tell our girls that their own company is okay. If they have to ‘lone it’ at lunchtime, that’s fine. My eldest would sometimes go to the library by herself if that was what she needed to do. She knows she will always come home to her family who love her. If our children have had a bad day, we tell them stories about when that happened to us at school. That way they know what they are going through happens to everyone.’
It’s so important that we take the time to normalise standing alone. There have been many men and women from history who consciously chose to ‘stand alone’. They defended deep convictions, beliefs, ideas and dreams. They also chose to stand alone to protect other people. In some ways it is the most powerful place to stand. It is far better to stand alone than compromise who you are.
But embracing loneliness takes courage, especially for a young person.
When you ask students to recall a time when they stood alone, they are quick to share their experiences. Young people might stand alone when someone misunderstands them, judges them, rejects them or their ideas, or wants them to do something they are uncomfortable with. Surprisingly, standing alone is often admired by peers, and being true to yourself is usually the best response to being rejected by others.
Standing alone is like treading water. It’s not ideal in the long term, but in the short term it can be a life saver.
It takes some young people longer than others to find a group they belong to. In the meantime, their sense of belonging to themselves and belonging at home is critical. Young people are far better off being on their own than compromising who they are.
I need every child to see a rejection as a temporary position and an opportunity to find true friends. I want them to know that there is a friendship group waiting for them. And although I can’t be sure when they will turn up, standing alone will make room for them.
RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up”.