Social exclusion, bullying and parental roles


Social exclusion is becoming a more common and subtle form of bullying and probably more on display with girls than with boys. This is more a “crime of omission” and therefore not so readily apparent on the radar of many parents and educators. We could debate stereotypes, however, girls do exhibit a subtlety that readily appears to elude the social repertoire of boys, for better or worse. However, these are patterns and not absolutes, as many exceptions abound.

As long as there have been communities there has been exclusion and exile as a means to punish and banish unwelcome members. As children seek to define their identity vis a vis a peer group, the group defines itself as much by who it admits as by who it excludes. The group bestows value on those it includes, as much as it devalues those it excludes. When we are talking about middle school children the “values” that hold the group together are much more capricious and nebulous as compared to other social groups, such as say, religious groups.

There may be a group leader who may be more popular for some unspecific reasons. The group may be held together by an affinity to certain sports or interests. These bonds are vague but they usually are comprised of children who are followers, doing the bidding for an appointed leader, at times doing the “dirty work” for the leader, ranging from mean, humiliating comments to silent ignoring, directed toward designated nonmembers.

While these early groups don’t have the rites and rituals of more developed groups, the prototypical equivalent is usually exhibited in member’s demonstrations of loyalty to the leader, maintaining the “integrity” of the group, by targeting and excluding other children.

There is a funny thing about exclusion in that exclusion is a “cutoff” and because humans are socially reciprocal creatures, you can’t cut off another human without simultaneously cutting off emotions in yourself. This is the inherent danger in all groups that define themselves through exclusion, i.e., emotional cutoffs can lead to acts of sadism and marked deficits in empathy. It’s not that middle school children are inherently evil, however, there is alway an inherent peril when human groups define themselves by exclusion, school age children are just beginning this identity experimentation process, following their sociogenetic programming. It’s perfectly normal, though it can be perfectly harmful, hurtful, humiliating, and yes, at times, evil, without any interpersonal attunement to the recipient of abuse. That we allow these experimental behaviors to go unnoticed and unchecked could be our greatest lapse of authority as adult parents and educators.

Shaping our children’s development of empathy should be our greatest imperative and focus.

I have observed the many ways this is just not front and center on many adult’s radar. We live in a generation in which parents have potentially more access to their children’s social interactions, coordinating play dates, monitoring social media, etc. These are all potential opportunities and data points for us to monitor, observe and learn about our child’s mode of interaction with other children. Many parents have impressions of their children that are not empirically born out because they do not allow the time and effort to do a little “field research”, lest they see that little “Ellie May” is not the little angel they believed her to be. This type of benign neglect parenting that does not monitor and hold children accountable, creates children who are “shameless”.

The generational pendulum swings from fear of over shaming children to the absolute absence of shame/guilt in the parenting process. Like any emotion, shame/guilt serves adaptive social purposes, being a critical limiting emotion that regulates potentially hurtful behaviors. Parents observing their child’s peer group behaviors, online conversations, texts, etc. would yield a multitude of revelatory information. It is truly amazing how much autonomy middle school children are afforded with texting, snap chat, etc. I have observed the most vile, vulgar and vicious conversations, as well as bullying, that children indulge under the cover of cyber space, unchecked and uncorrected. And because many of these chats are group in nature, it becomes the perfect vehicle to exclude selected individuals. These unchecked practices create ingrained exploitative social patterns that, if recognized by a responsive and responsible parent, could have been remediated, at an earlier formative point of development, and have redeemed their child as well as the collateral hurt of other children.

Jim Esposito, MA LCMHC is a partner at Counseling Associates and a licensed clinical mental health counselor. Jim works with all ages and has a specialty in the area of child and family services, with a particular focus on at-risk children and families as well as school issues.

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