As members of the human species we are, by our very nature, social animals. We evolved living in groups, our hunter gatherer lifestyle meant that we were seldom, if ever, alone. Because of this we tend to go into a physical and mental decline if we are denied contact with our fellow humans. A strong, supportive social network of family and friends is one of the main protectors against stress.
It should therefore come as no surprise, that research has demonstrated strong emotional responses to both being excluded from the group, or being forced to exclude others from the group. This could be something as simple as being briefly involved in a game with strangers in the park, only for them to suddenly just carry on as if you were not there, to the deliberate ostracism that occurs when bullies get to work in schools, or whole societies make artificial divisions among people. These emotional responses can also come into play where groups are socially excluded or isolated as part of a deliberate policy, or unintentionally, when forces such as institutional racism come into play.
There are very good reasons why solitary confinement has been used as a punishment or form of torture for thousands of years.
In schools this sense of exclusion or social isolation can occur for many reasons. It can be produced by the deliberate ignoring, or scapegoating of a child by teachers or other students. Powerful figures in the student community may coerce others to join in and exclude others as well. This sense of exclusion can be brought about in many ways. This might be achieved through spreading rumours, calling the other person names or deliberately setting out to embarrass them. Something that the current love affair with social media makes even easier than ever before.
This deliberate social exclusion affects the normal development of children and adolescents in many areas of their lives, compromising both their physical and mental health. Social connectedness is important at any age, but this is especially so during our childhood development.
In adolescents social exclusion has particular effects on the brain’s emotion regulating circuits, with the anterior cingulate cortex and other brain centres that have a role in emotional regulation, such as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, being particularly affected. The anterior cingulate cortex reacts to peer rejection by becoming more active – leading to strong emotional responses, while other areas, such as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, that play a role in with how we regulate, and control our emotions become less active. This leads to strong emotional reactions which are exacerbated because they are only poorly controlled. This kind of response by the brain’s circuitry is particularly noticeable in adolescents, and highlights the significant role that social inclusion and a strong, supportive peer group have on normal adolescent social and personal development.
Adolescence is a time where reliance on our family is gradually superseded by reliance on our peer group. While we learn how to be a human being from being part of our family and our culture, it is more in relationship to our peer group that we develop our sense of identity. This is further compounded by the state of flux concerning what is in, or what is out, that surrounds many teenage social groupings.
Research undertaken at Edith Cowan University in 2009, gave an estimate of 1 in 6 children reporting that they had experienced this kind of social exclusion. The researchers felt that this was likely to be an understimate given the difficulties involved in measuring social exclusion because it is often covert. Social exclusion has an impact on the physical, emotional and mental health of individuals to whom it has happened. It also interferes with the ability to form enduring , close relationships.
So what are the main signs that a child or adolescent is socially excluded?
- Lower immune function with the associated tendency to get any virus or other illness that is going around.
- Poor sleep quality, both in relation to the anxiety that is present and to a tendency to lie awake, ruminating on what is happening.
- Where chronic bullying is occurring, there is also a strong tendency to develop low self worth and self esteem. Young people start to think that there must be something wrong with them, and that they are responsible for the situation in which they find themselves.
- Poor emotional regulation can lead to severe anxiety, depression and aggressive outbursts.
Our social nature means that we need to be connected to other people, and to feel loved and valued for ourselves. This needs us to develop lasting, positive reltionships, a skill that is impaired in this group of individuals. We need to help our children form secure relationships within the family, amongst their peers and in the wider community. Even one good relationship can be protective. From an early age, young people become aware of social rejection and can explain why it is wrong not to include other people in what is going on in the various communities to which they belong. It is important to help our children understand the importance of including others. Talking about how other people might feel in such situations and discussing how to make stronger social ties can help.
Should we find ourself in the position of having a child that has been socially excluded, for whatever reason, there are things that we can do, as parents, to help.
- First of all we need to ensure that our children know that we are available when they want to talk. When they choose to do so, we need to be open to what they say and calm in our responses. Children worry about upsetting their parents so it is important to be engaged with them and not judgemental or show too much distress.
- Be responsive to what the child says. Make sure that they know that they are allowed to feel safe, and that we will help bring this about by talking to the school or doing whatever else is necessary. With adolescents, ask what they would like us to do to help, and make a joint plan of what to do if things do not improve or change. Negotiating when we will take over as parents but allow enough time for them to address the issue in their own way first.
- Make sure that they feel valued, apreciated and loved. Highlight their gifts and abilities. Engage other family members and friends to create a “circle of security” around them.
- Make sure that the home is a safe haven. This is especially important in this modern era of social media where bullying no longer stops at the school gates. We may need to negotiate reduced access to the internet, setting parental controls or privacy settings, helping to block people as necessary and perhaps helping to get new e-mail adresses and phone numbers.
- Help with emotional regulations. Talk about how they may be feeling, help them to use positive self talk and thinking to manage the feelings and negative thoughts. Help them to use their positive talents as a way to cope.
- Encourage our childrens’ healthy friendships and if necessary suggest that they not see people who are contributing to their difficulties. Find clubs that they can join where they can meet people with similar interests, encourage play dates and sleep overs.
- Use the “high five” principle. One thing for each finger! Five people, places or activities that they can use to help feel safe if they are being excluded. A teacher, the library, a friend in another class, perhaps even helping their own teacher tidy up.
- Help our child to develop a sense of boundaries around other people’s behaviour. “This is not right, I would like you to stop.”, “This is bullying. It is wrong and you should stop.”, alongside this kind of action we must make sure our children also know where they can seek support and safety.
Whatever the reason that this kind of social exclusion occurs, be it from bullying at school, racial prejudice or perhaps belonging to a minority group, or even being old and infirm and unable to get out and join in, it needs to be addressed both by the individual and their supporting environment. The wider social issues need to be addressed in the wider community. Intolerance is a widespread community issue that requires education, and postive action to help eliminate it.
Strong, supportive communities can provide the support we need to allow ourselves and our children to flourish. Because they help to add a sense of belonging and cohesion to our lives they can help to counteract the negative effects of bullying and other forms of discrimination.
So let us not forget that as human beings we are social creatures that rely upon our communities for our very survival, and do what we can to help those whose communities have let them down.
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