Parenting the Left Out Child


One of the worst left out feelings I can remember from my school days was walking into the lunch room. The lunch room is awful if you don’t have assigned seats and you have no friends. When I was younger, I was in different schools for a few years. It was tough to make friends and it didn’t get easier with each move.

Even in my middle and high school years lunch was tough. It’s not that I didn’t have friends–I did–but they weren’t the kind of friends you’d hang out with. These were kids who would sit next to me in class because they knew I was smart and I would help them out, but when the bell rang, they’d take off eager to join their own groups of classmates.

When lunch rolled around, I had no real place to sit. I’d sit at the edge of a group and try to be included but never was, or I’d take the spot at the far end of the table and hope I didn’t get left out. (Gym class was almost as bad as lunch because being picked last for a team is the worst; you are basically standing in front of the entire class with a light shining on you that says: nobody wants this kid!)

So I get it. I absolutely understand what it feels like to be the left out kid.

Parenting the Left Out Child | Duluth Moms Blog

Here’s how you, as the parent, can help.

Don’t label your child

As soon as you slap a label on someone, that’s what they mentally get stuck on. If you say your child is shy, awkward, bossy, sassy, etc., that’s what they’ll think they have to be. We’ve all had a playdate go wrong with our kiddo acting out in one of these ways but instead of classifying their entire personality, remind them that it was just a hard day.

I’m the first to tell you I struggle with this because my Penelope challenges me in ways none of the other three do, and I’ve had to learn new ways to motivate and encourage her. The only labels that are good labels are ones that will improve, or reinforce, their self-esteem. Remind them daily that you love them, they are smart, they are beautiful, that they aren’t like anyone else in this world, remind them to never, ever change. (I’m going to put the plug in here for boys, too. Boys also need to hear these things because even boys are susceptible to eating disorders, self-harm, and worse. Boys face just as much pressure as girls, just in different ways.)

Be their buddy

Right now my son is in that weird middle school age where he’s trying to make new friends but also maintain the friendships he’s had since kindergarten. With the more social freedom that comes with getting older, sometimes kids ditch old friends for the new ones or move around the social scene. We saw this happen with my oldest daughter and it’s heartbreaking to watch her best friends forget all about her.

The best balm for these kinds of hurt feelings is to hang out with your kids! Spend time with them, and include them to make them feel like they’re part of something important. Sometimes I really just want to go shop alone, but I’ll take one kid with me and it’s nice to hear what they’ve been thinking about. Do something spontaneous with them, like an ice cream date, a painting night, a pallet painting party, movie, dinner, hike in a new area, etc.

Mom, planner extraordinaire

I have started planning one on one get-togethers with kids. I’ve found that getting a group of kids together is really a nightmare with everyone’s schedules and interests so we do one friend at a time. It’s less stress, it gives them a chance to form more of a friendship without the pressure of other social issues present in a group, and you get to know the child, too. Recently my daughter had a sleepover with a friend and I took them to a painting night. We grabbed ice cream and took a little walk. It was really fun, I learned more about my daughter’s friend, and I saw my daughter in a different setting.

I think kids in this tough middle age rage feel a lot of pressure to act older, but they still feel younger. When you have a group of kids, it’s easier for there to be the left out kid and then they are sleeping alone in the other room at a sleepover. When you do a one-on-one sleepovers (or social thing), there’s much less pressure for them to fit in with the group and they can just be kids.

Parenting the Left Out Child | Duluth Moms Blog

Listen until your ears fall off

If you’re not there yet, let me just warn you now that the stories your child will tell you about their day in middle school are so long. Do you remember that song from when we were little This Is The Song That Never Ends? (I’m so sorry; this will be in your head all day now!) Honestly, I’m not sure my daughter has ever gotten to the end, or to the point, of any story and we are into her third year of middle school. It’s painful, but listen.

Listen to the funny things, the things they say under their breath, the things they shout, and the things they stop talking about. Always ask questions about their day and have a weekly check in where you lay on their bed and ask them what’s going on, ask them to give you the gossip, what was the funniest thing this week, the worst thing, what do they think of the teachers, who is in their class, who did they sit with at lunch, etc.

You also have to pay attention. If they’ve sat next to someone the whole year and suddenly they aren’t- ask them why. When they know that you care and that you are paying attention to what they are saying it goes a long way for communication later on when they want to confide in you about the big things.

Encourage them to fix it

One of the hardest things as a parent is knowing that you can’t always fix things for your kids. Even if technically you can, it doesn’t mean you should. I have encountered so many instances where I’ve wanted to call a parent and tell them what’s going on but I don’t because I know that the blowback could be worse for my kiddo. (Obviously, if it’s a safety issue of any kind, you absolutely should communicate with other parents–you’re part of the village, do your part.) It’s important that your child learns how inter-personal relationships work. Sometimes they may take a misstep and have to fix it in order for a friendship to work.

It’s also important that they learn when it’s time to walk away from a friendship, and be open and inclusive of new ones. If they see someone looking left out, you want your child to be able to invite them over even if it’s not the “cool” thing. Ask them if there is a sport, activity, or group they are into or want to try and see if there is something locally they can get into- perhaps being with people who like the same things would be helpful for making new friendships.

Never in the 14 years I’ve been a parent have I ever heard a parent say their child is the bully or their child is the bratty kid in the group, and we all know a few we could name right now. It’s important to always be checking in with your child–even if they are in the popular group. Ask them about friends you haven’t heard about or seen. I don’t recommend forcing friendships, but maybe talking to your child about why it’s not OK to just leave out friend for no reason, or because they aren’t part of the same social group.

It’s so hard being a parent and it’s so much harder when your child struggles even a little bit. Our job isn’t to be smooth things over all of the time. Our job is to guide our kids and help them figure out how to find the best solution. Ultimately, letting them find their way is what will give them the confidence to go out into that world someday and know that not everything can be fixed with a band-aid.

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Sara Strand
Sara is a stay home mom (not a regular mom, a “cool” mom) of two teenagers and two elementary grade kids, who is always stressed out because one has their driver's license, one is a free spirit, one is fearless, and one is always in the clouds. In her “free time”, she is a book reviewer, dance mom, true crime podcast junkie, Dateline/Keith Morrison fan club devotee, and an Amniotic Fluid Embolism survivor. Always honest and sometimes funny, you can also find her at her blog, Stranded in Chaos (, where she shares good (and not so good) books, tales from mom life, recovery and life after birth trauma, and livin’ la vida loca after 40ish.