Knowing Your Place

Panic at the Disco

(c) Andreas

The adolescent need for acceptance and belonging has kept social psychologists and anthropologists busy for decades, and rightly so; the memories associated with anxiety, fear and panic around teenage group inclusion/exclusion live on long after the teen years are gone.  In a book called Peer groups: expanding our study of small group communication, SunWolf (no first name it seems) uses the term entry stress to describe the feelings of all adolescents who instinctively understand the social and emotional costs of peer exclusion.  Attempts to gain entry to groups by whatever means carry potential consequences that can have lasting effects in the social bear pit of adolescent life:

Drive by any bus stop. Walk by any school playground, stop by any school cafeteria. Sounds of silence may be signs of peer group shunning and exclusion. Sneers and cutting remarks announce impenetrable peer group boundaries.  Just when the need to belong is greatest, the difficulty of entering peer groups may seem overwhelming to most teens.         

To flesh out this concept of entry stress, Sunwolf refers to a study by Orenstein in which

one girl who was new to school remembered her desperate desire to gain social inclusion as she anticipated entry, when, instead, she was cruelly stigmatised on the first day for her weight. The stigma kept her from gaining group access: ‘Nobody even gave me a chance. It was like they were afraid to talk to me because I was fat, like I had a disease’.

The stress and anxiety of peer exclusion doesn’t just affect those who are deemed socially ‘unworthy’, however; even the chosen ones suffer, the stress of acceptance affecting everyone:

Even mothers of the prettiest girls in the class have complained. A well-heeled Chicago mom confessed that her beautiful sixth-grade daughter cries in her room nightly, afraid she won’t look right tomorrow and as a consequence she will lose her standing.  A popular 14-year-old admitted that she slashed her arm with a wallpaper cutter to bleed out the shame she felt after hearing rumours accusing her of sleeping around [from Gianetti and Sagarese, 2001].    

Much of this ‘sturm und drang’ of adolescence is well documented in both the academic literature and popular culture (how often does entry stress get a workout in Hollywood teen movies?).  What is less well documented is the compulsory nature of such group belonging. As SunWolf puts it, ‘one dynamic law that influences the peer group of children is that children perceive that you must belong to a group’ – to such an extent that ‘rejected children frequently create groups of their own.’

Of course, Dirty Looks is keen to explore this compulsification further, and its relational sources in particular. But another way of approaching the phenomenon of group belonging is to identify what happens when you don’t belong: because repeatedly rejected children

  • Spend more time isolated, with fewer opportunities for development of social skills
  • Have an increased probability of future rejection and anti-social behaviours
  • Become emotionally distracted and unable to listen or learn in the classroom
  • Feel inner numbness, and a feeling of being empty, bored, or disconnected from their lives
  • Give up sooner on frustrating tasks and are less motivated to control their own behaviours.

Whatever the source of entry stress is, these consequences of exclusion suggest that the private lives of teenagers have real and troubling implications for public policy. Public policy, however, is rarely if ever a concern for teenagers who are too busy trying to avoid exclusion to care too much about its after-effects.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.