Spotlight On: Social Exclusion

31 March 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 31 March 2023

Junior School parents will know that Queenwood has a rule about birthday party invitations: if you give them out at school, you must invite the whole class; if you don’t invite the whole class (which is fine), you must distribute them some other way.

The reason is obvious: it’s mean. Any 10-year-old who sees the girls around her being invited to a social event from which she is excluded will feel miserable. It’s so obvious that one wonders why we need such a rule at all. One would hope that all girls (and parents) would be alive to the impact of such exclusion and would consciously avoid causing such hurt, but experience tells us that we cannot assume this will be the case – hence the rule.

Social exclusion, if done intentionally, is bullying. It can arise at any age and its essentials are the same: a group gathers together, deliberately leaving out one or two members, and humiliates them by flaunting it. The social event can vary from a child’s birthday party to a teenager’s shopping trip or a long-planned 18th birthday celebration. The way the exclusion is enforced is more varied than ever – from a heartless conversation amongst the group, to intentionally posting photos on Instagram, to advertising personal locations on a Snap Map (one of the most common).

Social exclusion is a powerful way for bullies to exert dominance. Girls are understandably distraught if they see that their friends have gathered and celebrated without them. It throws them into confusion, undermining their confidence and trust as they struggle with the betrayal and cruelty of their ‘friends’. We take such incidents very seriously and, as with any ongoing and deliberate misuse of power, we will apply serious sanctions. There is no place for bullying at Queenwood.

But recent discussions with Year 12 students have painted for me a more complex picture. I asked the Year 12s whether they had personally been the victim of social exclusion, and every single hand went up. No doubt there will have been some cases of intentional social exclusion, but the very fact that this was a universal experience tells us that not every case of exclusion is ‘bullying’, in the sense of the case above. In the same way, it is highly unlikely that the parents sending party invitations to be distributed at school are intending to harm other people’s children.

I asked Year 12s for help in understanding the problem and they responded thoughtfully. Somewhat to my surprise, all the girls I spoke with had come to the view that every girl will not only have been socially excluded but will also, at some point, have been responsible for it.

Initially, this seemed unlikely to me; surely the targeted cruelty described above is not a common behaviour? But the girls explained to me that the real problem is ambiguity, which creates space for misunderstanding.

How might ambiguity arise? The girls might decide to do something spontaneously – deciding a plan on the spur of the moment on the bus on the way home. They might decide to do something at very short notice – part of the phenomenon these days (most irritating to parents!) where young people wait until the last possible minute to finalise plans, by which stage it is logistically impossible to draw everyone in. There is also a contemporary practice of ‘plus ones’ – where a guest is invited to bring a specific number of friends of their choice with them, with the result that the person issuing the invitation (i.e. not the host) does not determine numbers, making it impossible to be inclusive. (I’m old-fashioned enough to think this is an awful practice but ask your 15-year-old – it’s common these days.)

Where ambiguity arises, insecurity fills the vacuum. In the Senior School assembly this week, I went through some of the most common cognitive distortions which tend to make girls miserable in such situations. There are too many to list in full but some examples include:
  • Jumping to conclusions – assuming that you know other people’s thoughts and intentions when you don’t e.g. “They must have done this with the intention of hurting me.”
  • Mental filtering – focusing on the negatives and discounting the positive e.g. dwelling on the relationship that isn’t working and ignoring the ones that are.
  • Labelling – treating an incident or behaviour as part of your essential identity e.g. “I’m the unpopular one” instead of “I’m part of a group but we don’t do everything together”.
(The list goes on.)

There has been extensive research into these cognitive distortions, to which we are all prone, and we know that they lead to significant distress and anxiety if they become habitual. Interestingly, the Year 12s with whom I spoke were able to identify these patterns in themselves, and they argued that the single most useful thing they had learnt from their own harsh experience was the importance of confronting and breaking these patterns of thought.

If you are familiar with the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, this will not surprise you. There is an enormous body of research to show that unhelpful thoughts make us miserable if they become entrenched, but happily there are well established techniques to break their hold on us. If you’ve reviewed the list of cognitive distortions at the link above and recognise some of your daughter’s responses in them, you may wish to help her by opening up discussions about them. (If she’s in the Senior School, you could ask her about what she heard in Assembly and which ones she recognised in herself.) This can be a powerful first step.

With impressive insight, the senior girls with whom I was speaking have recognised that much of their misery has come from their reflex of thinking the worst of the situation when something goes wrong. As Jonathan Haidt has noted, ‘Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded’. If you are interested in exploring this in more detail, I commend Haidt’s writings for further reading and he also lists some useful resources for parents here.

Social exclusion is a problem we must fight in every direction. The solution is not to insist that everyone must do everything together but to calibrate our response to the particulars of the situation before us.

First, we need to come down hard where it is done deliberately. It is vital that any girl or parent who thinks she is being bullied in this way should bring it forward. Girls should not suffer alone.

Second, we need to build our girls’ resilience when they hit bumps in the road. Learning to meet life’s challenges with more productive responses and habits of thoughts is essential.

And finally, we need to be more thoughtful. Parents may not intend to harm children by sending party invitations for distribution at school, but their lack of consideration will harm nonetheless. As parents and teachers, we need to do a better of job modelling to our children how to show basic consideration to others. In particular, our girls need help setting boundaries that will reduce the confusion and inadvertent exclusion – for example, by adopting more thoughtful ways of inviting people to come together, setting clearer expectations about how social media is used (including the use of tracking tools like Snap Map and Find My) and communicating better with their peers, so that misunderstandings are not left to fester.

We often assume that there are only benefits to leaving behind the rigid social protocols of yesteryear but there is a hidden emotional cost when children are left to negotiate social and emotional ambiguity on their own. We will have a happier and healthier community and more resilient young women if we help them acquire the skills to navigate their own path in a modern social landscape.