Alienation works because each child knows that they can be the next one to be alienated. This is what prompts them to be the one to alienate, rather than risking becoming the one who is alienated.
In each and every group of friends there is an unspoken hierarchy. The ones at the bottom know they are the most vulnerable. This is what makes them the most likely to alienate others. This is not just true for children, the same thing happens in adult circles. This is what makes peer-pressure a life-long issue for some people. Billion dollar industries have resulted around social anxiety and the fear of alienation. Addictions take hold of people as they use alcohol and pills to help them feel more comfortable around others. Everyone wants to fit in somewhere; everyone wants to belong.
In my experience, middle school is the height of drama in relation to friends. Children in our school district come from several elementary schools into one middle school in the sixth grade. For my children, sixth grade was a time of emotional turmoil, but it was seventh grade that was the worst. Until middle school, both children had had the same group of friends (more or less) since kindergarten. All of a sudden, other kids were put into the mix and they found themselves vying for both old friendships and new.
It was late January and my son was in seventh grade when he came home from school with tears in his eyes. He said that he didn’t know what he was doing wrong, he had always had friends. It seemed there was a “situation” at the lunch table. In our middle school you pick a lunch table to sit at in the first weeks of school and that is where you sit for the rest of the year unless you ask for permission to leave the table. There were eight boys at his table, one of which had trouble socializing with other kids. He had trouble at home and tended to use bad language and act out, taking the other kids’ lunches and testing their patience and the limits of their friendships. My son knew that this boy had a difficult situation at home, so he tried to give the boy support in school. But another boy at the table decided he had had enough and he asked to be moved to a different table . . . permission was granted. Then another boy asked permission to leave . . . permission was granted. Soon everyone was “jumping ship,” no one wanted to be the last one left at the table. Eventually, there were three boys left: the boy who had the social problem, my son, and a third boy. On this day, the third boy had told my son he wanted to switch tables. He was afraid that if my son was absent from school one day, and the other boy was taken out of lunch to get the support he was given through the “Resource Room,” then he would end up possibly sitting at a lunch table all by himself! My son didn’t want to desert this boy that everyone else had deserted, yet he was feeling the pressure of being left alone and becoming a complete social outcast if he continued to stand by this boy.
I told my son that I was proud of him for not deserting the boy that everyone else was leaving. Then I told him that this was not a problem he should deal with alone. I told him to contact the Student Assistance Counselor at the school. I had worked with him before and knew he would be a support for my son and help him through this situation. I called him myself, without my son’s knowledge, and explained that my son might contact him. I wanted to give him some background but I also wanted my son to feel that he was taking the initiative to ask for help with this problem on his own. A decision was made to move the boy who had the social problems to a table in the other cafeteria to give him a fresh start and to move my son and the remaining boy to a table where two of the other boys from their table had already moved to.
Well, this should have solved the problem, but being middle school, one problem just warped into another one. At the new table, there were now four boys who had been at the table since the beginning of the year and the four “new” boys consisting of my son and his friends. The original boys at the table had a leader and this boy decided that the new boys (especially the last two to come to their table) must be outcasts and so he was not going to socialize with them, nor was he going to allow the other boys in his group to socialize with them. So now my son was the one being alienated. Disheartened, he came to me again and explained the new problem. I came up with a plan.
The following week was my son’s13th birthday. I told him to ask the boys which fast food they liked better, McDonald’s or Burger King, and that I would bring in lunch for the whole table for his birthday. So the next day he stood up at the lunch table and said, “I have something to ask everyone.” The leader of the original boys said, “We don’t care what you have to say.” My son sat back down, defeated and stunned. On the day of his birthday, I brought in eight Burger King kids’ meals and a box of dunkin munchkins for the whole table anyway. All the boys, except two, took the kids’ meals; only one, the ringleader, refused even to take a munchkin. Still none of the original four from the new table would talk to him. My son spoke again with the Student Assistance Counselor and explained what was happening. He also said that he didn’t want anyone punished for what had happened. He and his three friends were moved back to their original table. Two of the other boys who had moved away from the original table ended up moving back with them also. They spent the rest of the year at the table without incident.
So what did I learn from this experience? First, that it is really important to have the type of relationship with your child where he feels he can come to you when he’s dealing with a problem. Second, you just can’t completely protect your child from being hurt by others. Third, that when a situation like this presents itself, use it to teach your child a lesson about life. He now understands that he cannot control the behavior of other people and that their behavior has nothing to do with him, it has to do with their own experiences and environment. He knows he can ask for help and has learned that sometimes the answer is, if you cannot resolve the situation, you have to take yourself out of it . . . remove yourself from the environment.
It is better that he learns these lessons now, with a support system around him, so that when he is an adult and he encounters a similar situation, he will have the tools with which to deal with it. That is really what these years are for . . . to learn that there are consequences to actions and that you can only be responsible for your own actions.
http://www.theresadodaro.com Author of The Tin Box Trilogy