“Kids are social creatures, and they need to be in relationships to feel right. Isolating involves cutting someone off from essential relationships. Some kids are pushed into a social ‘no man’s land’ by the exclusionary efforts of their peers. This isolation is itself a problem, as its victims can easily become disconnected from the moderating forces of mainstream society. …Most of us can identify with the hurt, anger, pain, and bewilderment that anyone might feel in a situation (of social exclusion). Imagine the impact, then, on a child whose whole universe revolves around acceptance, friendships, and the need for support from peers. It is devastating.”
-Garbarino & deLara (2002, pp. 7, 101)
Exclusion or peer isolation is a subtle form of bullying that often takes place right beneath the awareness of adults. It’s silent and often invisible, yet also powerfully destructive for those youth who experience it. It can take the form of ignoring someone, openly excluding or isolating a child, rallying other students to dislike a child, or giving someone a cold shoulder and the silent treatment; but in every form, exclusion is a type of social rejection.
In our chapter on the consequences of bullying, we talk about how social pain tends to produce the most severe stress and the strongest emotional reaction, primarily because our brains are wired to treat social exclusion as a threat of life-death significance. Although banishment from high school peers is not the same as being thrown out of the tribe and left on your own in the wilderness, the pain teens feel from peer exclusion can match this intensity.
Social exclusion as a form of relational aggression
Girls are the ones who most often use exclusion as a form of emotional bullying. In fact, it’s been noted that this type of group exclusion is “a very basic way in which girls exert power over each other.” (ibid, p.8) Usually this type of bullying begins when one child with plenty of social clout develops a grudge against another child in the same peer group. So she’ll work behind the scenes to try to alienate that girl from her social circle.
This often happens without the victim knowing what is going on, which only amplifies the hurt. Imagine how devastating it must be to suddenly wake up one morning and receive dirty looks and cold shoulders from peers you were on good terms with just a few days before, without understanding why this is happening. Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 101) describe the following scenario as an example: “At lunch you look forward to sitting with a friend, but as you approach the table, nobody moves over to make room. Somebody lamely suggests that there is another table open. Stunned and hurt, you move on to an empty table, where no one joins you for lunch.” Little scenes like this can play out several times a day for a child who is being targeted for exclusion.
Youth who experience this type of treatment naturally look within themselves to try and figure out why this is happening, and so they tend to relentlessly beat themselves up and wallow in self-blame. Victims of exclusion bullying rarely tell an adult about what is happening to them. Instead, they slog through it in silence and confusion, ruminating over all the things that must be wrong about themselves. Many times, the thought that such events could transpire as a result of bullying never occurs to them. All they know is that suddenly they appear to be despised by those around them.
Territorial exclusion as a form of bullying
Another common type of exclusion bullying is to restrict access to a particular area of the school; be it a hallway, a set of lockers, a particular room, or an area outside of the school. It also commonly occurs in places like the cafeteria, where different cliques or groups try to claim certain space for their own, leaving nowhere left over for bullied kids or social outcasts to have a place to belong. This territorial exclusion usually involves people a child was never acquainted with, and so it’s usually not as devastating as the other kind, but it can be irritating and hurtful nonetheless.
Although these exclusion zones aren’t maintained with impenetrable impunity, they nonetheless render large swaths of a child’s environment as dangerous, hostile territory where they are open to attack. This type of territorial exclusion can comprise a major component of bullying.
The long term cost of social exclusion
When it continues, social rejection is probably the most dangerous psychological condition – both for the individual and for society. It results in antisocial personalities, a loss of empathy towards peers, and places an individual under extreme psychological duress. Social outcasts may band together and begin to form dangerous ways of thinking about their place or role in society. Case in point: In a journal, one of the Columbine killers specifically mentioned the pain he felt from peer exclusion as a motive for the deadly attack.