A Better Response to Rejection

(Jacqueline Larma - Associated Press)
By Maia Szalavitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Across the nation, school doors are closing on one of the bloodiest year in U.S. history, with scores of violent deaths on both school and college campuses. The end of classes also means the end, for this term, of uneven school efforts to prevent the social rejection that may lie behind some of the violence.

Once dismissed as just part of growing up, peer rejection has in recent years been linked with a host of problem behaviors, possibly including an individual's chances of developing mental illness.

Scientists say that while repeated and deliberate rejection by one's peers may result in little lasting harm for some young people, in others it causes alienation, withdrawal, depression, anxiety and even violent outbursts such as school shootings.

An extreme example is Seung Hui Cho, who fatally shot 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16 before committing suicide. In messages he left to be viewed after his death, Cho said his rampage flowed from a long history of being socially isolated and bullied.

Whatever facts finally emerge about Cho's mental health, his videotaped remarks put an unsmiling -- and unusually violent -- face on a problem faced in smaller ways by many young people.

Over the past two decades, scientists have produced an increasingly fine-grained picture of children's social lives, using diaries, surveys and videotapes of playground and lunchroom behavior to gain new understanding of how social skills develop and affect mental health.

Just this month the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published a Finnish study of more than 2,500 16- to 20-year-old boys, followed since they were 8; it showed that those who had been frequent bullies or victims of bullies were responsible for a disproportionate share of juvenile crimes during the four-year study period.

Scientists have also designed initiatives ranging from social skills groups to school counseling to try to stop emotionally hurtful patterns. But the complexity of the issue has stymied easy fixes, and competing educational priorities have left little time for schools to practice and refine interventions.

New brain scan research, including a 2003 study in the journal Science, shows that social rejection activates the same brain regions that are involved in feelings of physical pain. Sandra Graham, professor of psychological studies in education at UCLA, notes such research shows that rejection "goes very deep and has some serious long-term consequences."

In a species in which for most of our evolution exclusion from our social group could mean death, such biological responsiveness to rejection makes sense.

In childhood, short periods of peer rejection are common and not always a reason for concern. When researchers poll elementary school children about their friends, about 10 percent are not named as pals by any classmates.

A year later, only about 40 to 50 percent of rejected children are still left out; about 30 percent will have ongoing social problems, according to research by Antonius Cillessen, psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

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