by Dr. Kwame M Brown
This will be the first of two parts, exploring the connections between social awareness and bullying / exclusion. The purpose of this first part is to call out the issue in the larger scope of the lives of children / teens. The second part will explore some ways those of us who work with children can attempt to change the landscape as it currently exists. Since these articles are appearing in a blog, they will obviously not be a full dissertation, exploring every detail. The purpose here is to start a valuable discussion.
A significant feature of the play environment we provide our children these days is exclusion (from coaches and teams) and bullying (from both peers and coaches). Children who don’t make a team are already made to feel “less than”. Many coaches and teachers tend to value the more talented children, even to the point of excusing certain behaviors. On the flip side, many coaches and teachers engage in bullying behaviors. Yes, these issues have been around for a while, but have greater consequences now with the electronic age. Social media and modern communication devices confer the ability for bullying and exclusion to follow a child around, literally. The obsession we have with elitism, and promoting the elite performers of sports almost exclusively, also may contribute to the behavioral trait of subjugation and ridicule of others.
To compound this environment, there is the issue of social-emotional skill in kids. A study by McKown et. al. (Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 38(6), 858-871, 2009) studied the behaviors that may “cause” social competence. Among these “behaviors” are social-emotional skill, which is basically the ability to read signals in social situations, and the ability to regulate behavior. I am sure that we can all call up instances where kids, parents, or coaches seem unable to regulate behavior. I also believe that there is this overall sense that this ability is sorely lacking in general within both professional and youth sports. Lack of the aforementioned skills, especially self-regulation, can lead to exclusion and bullying (Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 21 No. 1, February 2001, 29-49).
"Everyone gets bullied and rejected, what’s the big deal, you get through it…" I can’t tell you how often I hear this from peers, teachers, coaches, and even parents (though rarely the parent of the one getting bullied). Keep reading…
Did you know that the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with physical pain, has been show to light up the same exact way on functional MRI from social rejection (Panksepp, Science, 10/10/03)? Although fMRI certainly has its limitations, and the detailed circuitry could be a bit different for physical pain, this series of studies shows a pretty big overlap between the two. How would you feel about your kid or kids under your charge getting punched in the face every day? It may feel the same way to them to be excluded, rejected socially, or be bullied. In other words – not too funny – Unless of course, you are the proud parent of a cartoon. Then it’s funny.
Still don’t believe this is an issue for kids? They will get over it, and it won’t have an impact on their future? Studies have shown that there are lasting effects of bullying well into adulthood not only for the victim, but for the bully themselves. These lasting effects can include an increased likelihood of criminal activity, depression, and other maladaptive behaviors. This is reviewed nicely by Haynie et. al. (Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 21 No. 1, February 2001, 29-49). The article contains many more resources for your reading pleasure.
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Dr. Kwame M. Brown, Ph.D., YFS2, CSCS