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When Sara left home for the first day of sixth grade, she was super-excited about starting middle school. She was anything but excited when she got in the car at the end of the day.

Sara (not her real name) told her mom that her friends since kindergarten decided to end their friendship. The leader of the band of girls had told the rest of the group, "We don't like her anymore," a statement that launched Sara and her family into a year of chaos.

Every impulse in Sara's mom wanted to hunt down those girls, but she knew better than to do that. In conversations with other moms, she asked, "Why all the meanness?" Many of the women had not only experienced this with their children, they had gone through it themselves and could still recall the interactions in painstaking detail.

"Peer pressure and rejection hurts so much because it hits a youngster's self-esteem, which is still wobbly at best during the pre-teen and early teen years," says psychologist Dr. Susan Hickman from the Mental Fitness Institute in Chattanooga.

"To make it worse, children at this age have not yet developed good filters to distinguish that this type of experience may be more about the other person than about them. This means they immediately translate the bad behavior of others as being directly related to themselves as unworthy when, in reality, these two are not connected in any way."

Whether young or old, everyone has the need to belong, so the feeling of rejection hits a person right in the gut.

"If children cannot get a good sense of belonging from a peer group at school, parents have to help them work a little harder to develop a sense of belonging in another way, such as through team sports, extracurricular hobbies, neighborhood peers or church groups," Hickman says. "Once they establish a group with which they can identify, it is much easier to teach them how to dismiss their peers' bad behavior and grasp the fact that it is really not about them at all."

Hickman believes teaching children mental-fitness skills is the key to navigating these tough situations and evaluating their own feelings. Learning how to challenge and confront the false ideas around them can keep them steady for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, you can help your child with these steps:

* Develop healthy self-esteem that is not affected by the negative opinion of those who want to hurt them. Help them solidify an appropriate sense of self-approval in spite of the bad behavior of others.

* Learn healthy coping skills in the midst of negative circumstances. Self-talk is a key component to this. It's important for them to cope with emotional upheaval in healthy ways instead of inflicting self-harm or flocking to unsavory peers. Walk them through identifying healthy ways they can cope.

* Keep perspective. Teach them to assess how much the situation has to do with themselves versus the bully. Get them to ask: Why might this person act this way? This teaches them to put themselves in the other person's shoes and separate themselves from the event. It also helps them look at their own behavior and make necessary changes.

* Find alternative strategies and resources for fitting in. It may be helpful to take up a new hobby, join a sports team or even find a new set of friends. A busy mind is far less fertile ground for thinking negative thoughts.

So, how exactly do you teach them these skills?

"Think of it as you would any other skill, such as tying your shoes," says Hickman. "Know what you want to teach them and show them the steps to reach their goal. Then, gently correct any missteps, model the next step for them and have them practice the behavior until it becomes natural to them."

This will take some time and probably patience, but in the end you will have taught them how to handle life situations and their own emotions with dignity.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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