But what about students who are ostracized? Ignored by their peers as if they don't exist? Consider it bullying or not, it's a form of cruelty that's tougher for authorities to prohibit, yet it can be just as psychologically damaging, says Kip Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University.
He published a review article on ostracism in this month's issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, detailing the three stages that a person experiences going through the "grief" of exclusion: pain, attempts to cope, and learned helplessness or depression.
The first stage, akin to feeling sharp pain, occurs in the first few seconds of rejection and actually activates areas of the brain that detect discomfort, Williams says. "That quickly gives way to trying to deal with it like doing things to get back in the group or paying more attention to social information. Sometimes it involves seeking out other friends."
Unfortunately, as Williams has seen through his research, ostracism by one can quickly transform into exclusion by many, causing a person to feel so very alone. Those treated like social pariahs often act out in ways to seek attention, sometimes becoming violent, Williams says.
(The Virgina Tech shooter and Columbine killers were described as "loners" and "social outcasts".)
The final stage of ostracism involves a sort of acceptance that things simply aren't going to change, and that can trigger depression and even thoughts of suicide. That's often what can happen to bullying victims like Prince, though Williams says ostracism is quite different in many ways.
"With bullying you’re the object of unwanted attention, whereas with ostracism, it feels like you're shut out, invisible," he explains.
Ostracism is also far harder for schools to ban. After all, you can't force kids to be inclusive and play with everyone once they're beyond, say, nursery school or kindergarten.
Parents, though, can take steps to help their kids from feeling left out. Williams recommends adjusting "time out" punishments to allow kids to rejoin the family activities once they're, say, ready to apologize or act politely. And if a child is being ostracized by one friend or a group of friends, he or she should be encouraged to look for some new friends.
"As much as possible, parents should stress to their children that it's not about which group they belong to. All that's necessary is having a few close friends."
In fact, researchers have shown that it's the quality, not the quantity, of our friends that make the biggest difference when it comes to predicting our psychological and even physical health.
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