Think back to your childhood. Did you ever experience times where classmates or peers excluded you from playing, teased you, or didn’t allow you to sit with them at lunch? While this type of social exclusion is not uncommon in childhood, we now know that it can have significant emotional and even academic implications. Understanding more about this common, but difficult childhood experience can help us know how to support our children if they experience it. 

The Pain of Social Exclusion

Humans are inherently social beings. One of our core human needs is social interaction. Scientists believe this need originates from our evolutionary history in which those who worked together in groups survived and thrived. Therefore, when this need for social interaction is compromised, our well-being suffers.

This is clear from the case of social exclusion in childhood. Social exclusion can come in various forms, but in general, it is defined as being rejected either physically or emotionally by a group (usually peers). Research shows that when individuals experience social exclusion, the region of the brain that is activated is the same one that registers physical pain. Thus, when a person being excluded speaks of the experience being “painful,” it is not just a metaphor. The experience of being socially excluded is similar to physical pain in the body. It is not surprising, then, that social exclusion has been linked to physical changes in the body. For example, a study of adolescents showed that those who experienced social exclusion had different structural development in a particular region of the brain. Researchers believe that social exclusion actually impairs the maturation of the brain and may hinder future interactions with others. Similarly, social exclusion in young adolescents (ages 10–14) has been associated with reduced verbal working memory. This, of course, has implications for academic performance if a child’s working memory is compromised due to social exclusion. Therefore, overall, we see that social exclusion is not just a simple case of childhood misfortune but may have substantial impacts on children and adolescents’ well-being.

Parental Support for Socially Excluded Children

Although our first instinct as parents is to protect our children from harm, in the case of social exclusion, it may not be completely possible. Whether it be at school, extracurricular activities, or teams, children may experience social exclusion at times when we are not present. However, we can try to support our children through this difficult experience in order to buffer some of the emotional impacts. Here are a few ideas to consider when guiding a child experiencing social exclusion:

  • Empathy First: Although our children’s experience of social exclusion may seem like typical “childhood stuff” to us, as we have seen, children experience real emotional pain from these experiences of exclusion. Avoid minimizing children’s experiences or feelings. Try to empathize with their hurt feelings and remember back to your own childhood experiences and how it felt to be excluded.
  • Refocus: Helping children refocus their attention on other friends, perhaps in other settings that do not exclude them, can help them put the experience into perspective. Remind them of the caring friends they have from sports, clubs, religious organizations, hobbies, or other activities. Even children who experience social exclusion in one setting, may not experience it with other groups of friends.
  • Teach Them Coping Skills: It’s not uncommon for children experiencing social exclusion to lash out with aggression directed toward the excluders. However, the more we can teach healthy, effective coping strategies instead, the less likely children will resort to aggression. Coping strategies like deep breathing, mantras, and focusing on caring friends can help children better manage their emotions when social exclusion happens. 
  • More Coaching, Less Advice: Psychologists suggest that when helping children who are experiencing social exclusion, coaching is usually the best approach. Instead of trying to solve all their problems, which might inadvertently cause children to shut down and not talk, focus on listening and asking questions about their situation. You might also try a collaborative problem-solving approach in which you and the child work together to brainstorm different ways of handling the situation.

Above all, it’s helpful to keep in mind the option to seek help from counselors or administrators at your child’s school if the social exclusion becomes more severe or if you notice your child’s mental health suffering. As we have seen, the implications of social exclusion can be significant for a child’s well-being. Seeking help for your child can be a way to remedy the situation if it does not improve over time.

In the past, childhood social exclusion was often seen as just a case of “children being children” and not considered a serious concern. Today, however, we know that social exclusion can have negative emotional and cognitive impacts on children. Your loving support can provide a strong buffer against these effects. Helping children cope with or overcome social exclusion gives them hope and a road to a confident future.

Preview Blurb: The old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but in the case of social exclusion, words do hurt. Children who face social exclusion experience real emotional impacts. With your support, however, children can cope with this difficult childhood situation and even learn to be resilient in the face of it.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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