Hello. Welcome to the Raising Strong Girls podcast. I’m Karol Maybury presenting this podcast on behalf of Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women. Part 1 of this podcast tackles the tough topic of social rejection. We’ll hear from psychologists, young adult authors, parents, and, in Part 2, a teen guest.
Social rejection happens across all ages, and genders, but it seems to be a weapon yielded by girls with special skill, perhaps because relationship wellness is so crucial to girls’ social standing and well-being. But it goes beyond adolescent girls:
A couple of years ago, when my children were ages 11-16, we read “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, a fantastic book for tweens and teens about a boy beginning middle school, and his struggle to belong. August’s story of entering middle school has been called ‘a meditation on kindness and compassion’. His story is told from multiple middle schoolers’ voices, and the author captures how cruel (as well as how compassionate and strong) kids can be.
The thing my kids and I liked about this book, was its unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the yearning to belong to a group. We also liked that the characters evolved, just as kids develop greater social and emotional intelligence throughout adolescence. Another good book, which also depicts the pain of ostracism, and the regret it generates among those who stand by, or perpetrate it: the classic book “The Hundred Dresses” by Eleanor Estes.
Both stories address social rejection in an instructional way, and can lead a duo (like a mom and daughter) or a group (such as class who might read it during reading time) to some excellent discussions—hopefully with the result of reducing social pain.
Along with good literature, psychologists have examined the way the human brain responds to being given the ‘cold shoulder’ or the ‘silent treatment’ in the laboratory. The same parts of the brain activated during physical pain respond when we are intentionally ignored in social settings. An interesting experiment by UCLA neuroscientists Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman demonstrated this, and you can find an accessible link to the Psychology Today article at the podcast site.
Psychologist Kip Williams has also examined the effects of social rejection for years. Williams found, in his meta-study of 11,000 people that regardless of gender or personality, ostracism hurts but people employ different approaches to try to restore their sense of belonging. One teen may become overly social attentive… another may develop anti-social and aggressive inclinations. Self-harm, or aggression toward others, are both worrisome trends among some adolescents experiencing ostracism. It bears mentioning that Williams and others have found that even mild social rejection, such as suddenly being excluded from an on-line ball-tossing game (called Cyberball in Williams’ studies) produces the pain-like response of ostracism.
So what can adults do, besides share literature, or mention the research to our kids? Adults have their past histories that they can share. I remember my father telling my brothers and I about a terrible case of social rejection, which ended tragically, when he was a young man. My brothers and I have never forgotten that story, and we’ve shared it with our own children. Chances are you have some experience of being on the receiving end (or the witnessing end… or on the producing end) of social rejection, and if you’re like me, these are among our most painful experiences as a social beings. One caveat before we proceed: the social rejection considered in this podcast is a typical, though painful type of ostracism of adolescence. If your child’s experience seems more severe, please be aware that more entrenched social rejection can be potentially life-threatening. If your child is facing that level of severity, please follow up with school or law enforcement.
But about the more typical (still quite painful) experiences, such as being ignored by one’s friends at lunchtime, which is a common relational aggression maneuver? When parents see their daughter experience rejection from a friend or peer group, it may remind us of our own history of being outcast by one or more peers. We take on our child’s pain as our own, and the sense of outrage, confusion, and sadness, can be intense. Adults can provide, however, the perspective that social ostracism, while never fun, is generally a painful chapter, not the whole book, of one’s life. We can also lead our child through the maze of social rejection by helping her articulate what she will, and won’t, put up with in a friendship. This exercise, articulating our individual ‘friendship bill-of-rights’ as Rosalind Wiseman calls it involves considering our non-negotiable requirements of those we call true friends. We can do this anytime in life, but social rejection is a powerful time for this exercise, and it can yield lifelong fruit.
Another suggestion for parents: It may be hard to explain to your teen who’s in the thick of this bewildering experience, but try to reassure her that SHE will become a better friend in the future through this experience as well. Watching films like “Mean Girls” or “Chrissa Stands Strong,” for younger girls, also bring home the message of growth and change and ultimate victory over the exclusion. Sharing your experiences (the times you got it right, or got it wrong) to explain ostracism sensitizes us, once we’re older, to others’ feelings and can make us a a more inclusive individual, and mobilizes us to be an advocate and an ally when we see adult ostracism.
An example of typical teen ostracism might help before we discuss wise responses. I recently was told about an 8th grader who was being shunned by her peer group at lunch. For weeks on end, her friends refused to speak to her at ‘their’ lunch table. She would say hello, and they would ignore her. Attempts to interject or socialize were hardly met with any flicker of acknowledgement. This is classic social ostracism, and it feels much worse to the recipient than those who are inflicting. To the group, diffusion of responsibility occurs (everyone assumes others in the group bear more responsibility for the social rejection). In addition, the action doesn’t feel as injurious to the ostracizers as it does to the recipient. One of the insidious aspects of ostracism, is that may seems mild to observers, as well. Trickily, it may be virtually invisible to teachers or other people, because it happens so subtly, so quickly. Only when we are on the receiving end (and virtually every girl is, at some point in her life) do we feel the sting and crumbling self-confidence that can come along with being unacknowledged.
So how do we sensitize girls to the pain of ostracism before they engage? A few years ago, I did an interesting exercise with several pre-teen groups: We ran through a skit in which one girl was identified as ‘odd girl out’. The other girls followed suit, and then provided seemingly benign insults “her clothes are so lame” and the classic, snooty, quick ‘you don’t matter’ sneer that girls can deliver in nanoseconds before reassembling their features to seem perfectly innocent. In her outstanding book, “Odd Girl Out,” Rachel Simmons explains the multiple ways girls can isolate a girl without parents or teachers noticing.
When I asked the girls to illustrate this look to me, they did it flawlessly, especially, ironically, very socially skilled girls. They giggled as they took turns dramatically showing their best freeze-out nonverbal tactics. How did they all know this look? Is it really that ubiquitous? I think it is — both in media models in most middle schools. But here’s what we did next: We turned the tables and asked girls to volunteer to take turns being the targets. Each girl basically said the same thing: “It didn’t feel that bad when I did it, but when I received it, I felt like crap.” It was a powerful lesson that (being in the ‘it’ group, or even simply belonging in a small group of girls) feels good. When you are ‘out’ it feels exponentially more awful. Add to this complexity: what if a group is under the spell of a socially intimidating peer that is calling the shots? The girls may be legitimately concerned that “they might be next” if they don’t abide by the unwritten expectation to toe-the-line, and enact the ostracism. This is one reason to be wary of the socially powerful queen bee that uses ostracism or other social tactics to keep peers in line. Rosalind Wiseman’s book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees,” is a terrific primer on identifying and dealing with this difficult peer situation.
With that background in the psychology of ostracism, in our next segment, we’ll hear from a teen, Grace, a high school sophomore about ostracism in middle school and high school.