Social Isolation Among Children

When social isolation is imposed from the outside, the experience is one of the most difficult human experiences. Most people react with extreme distress to the concept of solitary confinement, because basically we are social animals. We need to interact with others. Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist, constructed “A Hierarchy of Needs” in which “Love and Belonging” is the third most basic need, only preceded by physical needs and safety needs.

There are a number of events that might cause someone to become isolated from others. For example, individuals with some types of physical disabilities have been excluded from the general population, but, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, children with various physical or intellectual disabilities are no longer kept home from school, and many are integrated into regular classrooms. One can better appreciate this movement’s drive towards inclusiveness in view of our human need for socialization and social contact.

Still schools have lagged behind in helping children with emotional issues and social deficits, although that is beginning to change, but gradually and only in limited ways. Of late, most of the individuals involved in mass shootings seemed to have mental and emotional problems that caused them to feel isolated and disconnected from peers and their community at large.

Some children are rejected by other children and not included in group activities, and this is often an extremely painful emotional experience. Often the child does not know what it takes to be accepted by other children, or is not capable of interacting in a socially desirable way. Some children yell and hit others in response to their own sense of frustration, and others withdraw and bury all their feelings. Neither of these approaches allows a child to understand themselves or others. The children who act out their feelings are the most likely to get attention, and some may be put into special classrooms, which can address some of their social problems, but also labels them. The withdrawn child is the most easily overlooked because they are not causing a disturbance to others, yet their own sense of alienation can grow.

Some children are arbitrarily shunned because one child has told other children to scapegoat a particular child, and enough children follow the stronger child’s lead. We have all witnessed the horrible incidents of bullying with some victims being so traumatized that they choose suicide as their means of escape.

Another group of children have so much chaos in their families that they come to school with very little reserve for coping and have parents who are physically or sexually abusive, mentally ill or addicts, and who exemplify extreme dysfunction in social interactions. Our schools have more and more pressure for their students to achieve high test scores in academic areas, so can they also be expected to address the social and emotional mental wellness of children? I’ll offer more on this topic in later blogs.

Patricia Boever, PhD Copyright 2014