Seeking social connection: How children recover from social exclusion

1 June 2019 | Amanda Mae Woodward (University of Maryland)

Think of a time that you met up with a friend at a coffee shop. The two of you sat at a table, drank coffee, and filled each other in on your lives. Over the course of the discussion, you may have experienced positive emotions like happiness, and you left the café with a sense of social connection.

Positive social interactions, like the one just described, correspond with our overall well-being and help fulfill a fundamental human need: the need to belong with others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Wesselman & Williams, 2013). However, as we all know, not all social interactions are positive. 

Imagine another scenario. You call one of your friends to make dinner plans. Your friend explains that he already has plans for dinner and will not be able to join you. You ask about his plans and learn that he is going to dinner with all of your mutual friends and no one has extended an invitation to you. 

How would you feel? You may, expectedly, experience negative emotions and feel lonely.

This interaction, and others like it, are instances of social exclusion. Being excluded negatively impacts social, cognitive, and physiological processing (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; Blackhart, Eckel, & Tice, 2007; DeWall, Deckman, Pond & Bonser, 2011). Exclusion leads to experiences of negative affect, decreases in mood, lowered self-esteem, and feelings of isolation (Leary & Cottrell, 2013; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). 

If social exclusion occurs chronically, the repercussions of exclusion compound and become more severe over time (Richman 2013; Williams, 2007). Even young children are subject to the negative effects of social exclusion. 

Socially excluded middle school children report more negative emotions and have decreased feelings of belonging when compared to their included counterparts (Abrams, Weick, Thomas, Colbe, & Franklin, 2011; Wölfer & Scheithauer, 2013). Four- to six-year-old children exclude each other frequently, and being excluded has a negative influence on their future social behaviours (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Stenseng, Belsky, Skalicka, & Wichstrøm, 2014).

 Due to social exclusion’s documented harmful consequences across the lifespan, it is important for children’s overall wellbeing to find a way to mitigate its effects. This post will explore some of the main strategies children use to mitigate such effects.

How do children ameliorate the consequences of social exclusion? One effective strategy involves the excluded child re-establishing a social connection (Maner et al., 2007).  Connecting with others satisfies children’s need to belong and reduces negative affect. To use this strategy, children must find potential social partners with whom they are likely to have positive interactions. 

If they think future interactions with the person who excluded them are likely, children may seek to reconnect with the excluder through the use of ingratiating behaviour (e.g., mimicry or conforming to another’s opinions). In other cases, such as when reconnecting with the excluder is unlikely, children may look for new approachable social partners or contexts with which to form positive relationships (Molden & Maner, 2013).

Young children’s responses to exclusion support the use of both strategies. Five-year-olds who are excluded by group members imitate other in-group members with more fidelity than children who were not excluded (Watson-Jones, Whitehouse, & Legare, 2015). Imitation is a type of flattery, so by mimicking the behaviour of potential social partners, children signal that they will be a good person with whom to interact (Over & Carpenter, 2009). 

Excluded children also demonstrate their openness to new social interaction in other ways. For instance, 5‑year-olds who are excluded have been shown to engage in more mentalizing and to attend to the feelings of others more often than included children (White et al., 2016). Even witnessing exclusion leads children to strategically seek social partners. 

After observing a peer experience exclusion, children have been shown to display behaviours that facilitate social connection, including imitating others more frequently, drawing more affiliative pictures, and sitting physically closer to others (Marinovic, Wahl, & Träuble, 2017; Over & Carpenter, 2009; Song, Over, & Carpenter, 2015).

Less work has examined other strategies children may use to reduce the harmful effects of social exclusion, particularly when they have, or believe that they have, restricted means by which to re-establish a social connection. When the perceived likelihood of social reconnection is low, excluded people may react aggressively in order to establish feelings of control over their own lives (Wesselman & Williams, 2013). 

For instance, adults respond to social exclusion in antisocial ways when they are unlikely to reconnect with others (Maner & Molden, 2013). Indeed, adults have been shown to behave more aggressively and to engage in less prosocial behaviour after being excluded (DeWall & Twenge, 2013; Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). 

Some recent research has explored children’s aggressive behaviour after exclusion and has found similar evidence for the use of an aggressive strategy: children who were already high in aggression demonstrated increases in aggression following exclusion (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Ostrov, 2010).

A final strategy to avoid or alleviate the harmful effects of social exclusion involves avoiding social interactions with people who are likely to exclude you. It is possible, and thus reasonable to infer, that people who have excluded you in the past would be likely to exclude you in the future, so you could circumvent the experience of social exclusion by refraining from interacting with them in the first place. 

Using this strategy requires excluded children to track social excluders and remember previous interactions. Our lab, the Lab for Early Social Cognition at the University of Maryland College Park, is currently working on a series of experiments to establish if and when children can use this strategy to effectively reduce the odds of experiencing social exclusion in the future.

Overall, social exclusion is harmful and can lead to devastating effects, the consequences of which apply to both adults and young children. It is thus essential to understand when children begin to experience instances of social exclusion and to establish how they can respond in order to prevent harm to themselves. This work may also have implications for the construction and implementation of interventions designed to help children reduce instances of social exclusion that they may carry with them into adulthood.


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