Seeking social connection: How children recover from social exclusion

Amanda Mae Woodward, PhD can­did­ate, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland

Think of a time that you met up with a friend at a cof­fee shop. The two of you sat at a table, drank cof­fee, and filled each oth­er in on your lives. Over the course of the dis­cus­sion, you may have exper­i­enced pos­it­ive emo­tions like hap­pi­ness, and you left the café with a sense of social con­nec­tion. Positive social inter­ac­tions, like the one just described, cor­res­pond with our over­all well-being and help ful­fill a fun­da­ment­al human need: the need to belong with oth­ers (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Wesselman & Williams, 2013). However, as we all know, not all social inter­ac­tions are pos­it­ive. Imagine anoth­er scen­ario. You call one of your friends to make din­ner plans. Your friend explains that he already has plans for din­ner and will not be able to join you. You ask about his plans and learn that he is going to din­ner with all of your mutu­al friends and no one has exten­ded an invit­a­tion to you. How would you feel? You may, expec­tedly, exper­i­ence neg­at­ive emo­tions and feel lonely.

This inter­ac­tion, and oth­ers like it, are instances of social exclu­sion. Being excluded neg­at­ively impacts social, cog­nit­ive, and physiolo­gic­al pro­cessing (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; Blackhart, Eckel, & Tice, 2007; DeWall, Deckman, Pond & Bonser, 2011). Exclusion leads to exper­i­ences of neg­at­ive affect, decreases in mood, lowered self-esteem, and feel­ings of isol­a­tion (Leary & Cottrell, 2013; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). If social exclu­sion occurs chron­ic­ally, the reper­cus­sions of exclu­sion com­pound and become more severe over time (Richman 2013; Williams, 2007). Even young chil­dren are sub­ject to the neg­at­ive effects of social exclu­sion. Socially excluded middle school chil­dren report more neg­at­ive emo­tions and have decreased feel­ings of belong­ing when com­pared to their included coun­ter­parts (Abrams, Weick, Thomas, Colbe, & Franklin, 2011; Wölfer & Scheithauer, 2013). Four- to six-year-old chil­dren exclude each oth­er fre­quently, and being excluded has a neg­at­ive influ­ence on their future social beha­vi­ors (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Stenseng, Belsky, Skalicka, & Wichstrøm, 2014). Due to social exclusion’s doc­u­mented harm­ful con­sequences across the lifespan, it is import­ant for children’s over­all well­being to find a way to mit­ig­ate its effects. This post will explore some of the main strategies chil­dren use to mit­ig­ate such effects.

How do chil­dren ameli­or­ate the con­sequences of social exclu­sion? One effect­ive strategy involves the excluded child rees­tab­lish­ing a social con­nec­tion (Maner et al., 2007).  Connecting with oth­ers sat­is­fies children’s need to belong and reduces neg­at­ive affect. To use this strategy, chil­dren must find poten­tial social part­ners with whom they are likely to have pos­it­ive inter­ac­tions. If they think future inter­ac­tions with the per­son who excluded them are likely, chil­dren may seek to recon­nect with the excluder through the use of ingra­ti­at­ing beha­vi­or (e.g., mim­icry or con­form­ing to another’s opin­ions). In oth­er cases, such as when recon­nect­ing with the excluder is unlikely, chil­dren may look for new approach­able social part­ners or con­texts with which to form pos­it­ive rela­tion­ships (Molden & Maner, 2013).

Young children’s responses to exclu­sion sup­port the use of both strategies. Five-year-olds who are excluded by group mem­bers imit­ate oth­er in-group mem­bers with more fidel­ity than chil­dren who were not excluded (Watson-Jones, Whitehouse, & Legare, 2015). Imitation is a type of flat­tery, so by mim­ick­ing the beha­vi­or of poten­tial social part­ners, chil­dren sig­nal that they will be a good per­son with whom to inter­act (Over & Carpenter, 2009). Excluded chil­dren also demon­strate their open­ness to new social inter­ac­tion in oth­er wa­­ys. For instance, 5‑year-olds who are excluded have been shown to engage in more men­tal­iz­ing and to attend to the feel­ings of oth­ers more often than included chil­dren (White et al., 2016). Even wit­ness­ing exclu­sion leads chil­dren to stra­tegic­ally seek social part­ners. After observing a peer exper­i­ence exclu­sion, chil­dren have been shown to dis­play beha­vi­ors that facil­it­ate social con­nec­tion, includ­ing imit­at­ing oth­ers more fre­quently, draw­ing more affil­i­at­ive pic­tures, and sit­ting phys­ic­ally closer to oth­ers (Marinovic, Wahl, & Träuble, 2017; Over & Carpenter, 2009; Song, Over, & Carpenter, 2015).

Less work has examined oth­er strategies chil­dren may use to reduce the harm­ful effects of social exclu­sion, par­tic­u­larly when they have, or believe that they have, restric­ted means by which to rees­tab­lish a social con­nec­tion. When the per­ceived like­li­hood of social recon­nec­tion is low, excluded people may react aggress­ively in order to estab­lish feel­ings of con­trol over their own lives (Wesselman & Williams, 2013). For instance, adults respond to social exclu­sion in anti­so­cial ways when they are unlikely to recon­nect with oth­ers (Maner & Molden, 2013). Indeed, adults have been shown to behave more aggress­ively and to engage in less proso­cial beha­vi­or after being excluded (DeWall & Twenge, 2013; Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). Some recent research has explored children’s aggress­ive beha­vi­or after exclu­sion and has found sim­il­ar evid­ence for the use of an aggress­ive strategy: chil­dren who were already high in aggres­sion demon­strated increases in aggres­sion fol­low­ing exclu­sion (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Ostrov, 2010).

A final strategy to avoid or alle­vi­ate the harm­ful effects of social exclu­sion involves avoid­ing social inter­ac­tions with people who are likely to exclude you. It is pos­sible, and thus reas­on­able to infer, that people who have excluded you in the past would be likely to exclude you in the future, so you could cir­cum­vent the exper­i­ence of social exclu­sion by refrain­ing from inter­act­ing with them in the first place. Using this strategy requires excluded chil­dren to track social excluders and remem­ber pre­vi­ous inter­ac­tions. Our lab, the Lab for Early Social Cognition at the University of Maryland College Park, is cur­rently work­ing on a series of exper­i­ments to estab­lish if and when chil­dren can use this strategy to effect­ively reduce the odds of exper­i­en­cing social exclu­sion in the future.

Overall, social exclu­sion is harm­ful and can lead to dev­ast­ing effects, the con­sequences of which apply to both adults and young chil­dren. It is thus essen­tial to under­stand when chil­dren begin to exper­i­ence instances of social exclu­sion and to estab­lish how they can respond in order to pre­vent harm to them­selves. This work may also have implic­a­tions for the con­struc­tion and imple­ment­a­tion of inter­ven­tions designed to help chil­dren reduce instances of social exclu­sion that they may carry with them into adulthood.



Abrams, D., Weick, M., Thomas, D., Colbe, H., & Franklin, K. M. (2011). On-line ostra­cism affects chil­dren dif­fer­ently from adoles­cents and adults. The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29(Pt 1), 110–123.

Baumiester, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for inter­per­son­al attach­ments as a fun­da­ment­al human motiv­a­tion. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Baumeister, R.F., Twenge, J.M., & Nuss, C.K. (2002). Effects of social exclu­sion on cog­nit­ive pro­cesses: anti­cip­ated alone­ness reduces intel­li­gent thought. Journal of per­son­al­ity and social psy­cho­logy, 83(4), 817.

Blackhart, G.C., Eckel, L.A., & Tice, D.M. (2007). Salivary cortisol in response to acute social rejec­tion and accept­ance by peers. Biological psy­cho­logy, 75(3), 267–276. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.03.005

DeWall, N.C., Deckman, T., Pond, R.S., Bonser, I. (2011). Belongingness as a core per­son­al­ity trait: How social exclu­sion influ­ences social func­tion­ing and per­son­al­ity expression.

Journal of Personality, 79(6), 1281- 1314. doi: 10.1111/j.1467–6494.2010.00695.x

DeWall, C.N & Twenge, J.M. (2013). Rejection and aggres­sion: Explaining the para­dox. In C.N. DeWall (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion (3–8). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanger, S.M., Frankel, L.A., & Hazen, N. (2012). Peer exclu­sion in preschool children’s play: Naturalistic obser­va­tions in a play­ground set­ting. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 58(2), 224–254.

Leary, M.R. & Cottrell, C.A. (2013). Evolutionary per­spect­ives on inter­per­son­al accept­ance and rejec­tion. In C.N. DeWall (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion (9–19). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maner, J.K., DeWall, C.N, Baumeister, R.F., & Schaller, M. (2007). Does social exclu­sion motiv­ate inter­per­son­al recon­nec­tion? Resolving the “por­cu­pine prob­lem.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 42–55. doi: 10.1037/0022–3514.92.1.42.

Molden, D.C. & Maner, J.K. (2013). How and when exclu­sion motiv­ates social recon­nec­tion. In C.N. DeWall (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion (121–131). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marinovic, V. & Träuble, B. (2018). Vicarious social exclu­sion and memory in young chil­dren. Developmental Psychology, 54(11), 2067–2076. doi: 10.1037/dev0000593

Marinovic, V., Wahl, S., & & Träuble, B. (2017). “Next to you” – Young chil­dren sit closer to a per­son fol­low­ing vicari­ous ostra­cism. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 156, 179–185. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.11.011

Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2009). Priming third-party ostra­cism increases affil­i­at­ive imit­a­tion in chil­dren. Developmental Science, 12(3), 1–8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467–7687.2008.00820.x

Ostrov, J. (2010). Prospective asso­ci­ations between peer vic­tim­iz­a­tion and aggres­sion. Child Development, 81(6), 1670–1677.

Richman, L.S. (2013). The multi-motive mod­el of responses to rejection-related exper­i­ences. In C.N. DeWall (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion (9–19). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Song, R., Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2015). Children draw more affil­i­at­ive pic­tures fol­low­ing prim­ing with third-party ostra­cism. Developmental Psychology, 51(6), 831–840. doi: 10.1037/a0039176

Stenseng, F., Belsky, J., Skalicka, V. & Wichstrom, L. (2014). Social exclu­sion pre­dicts impaired self-regulation: A 2‑year lon­git­ud­in­al pan­el study includ­ing the trans­ition from preschool to school. Journal of Personality, 83(2), 213–220. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12096

Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M., & Stucke, T.S. (2001). If you can’t join them, beat them: Effects of social exclu­sion on aggress­ive beha­vi­or. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 1058–1069). doi: 10.1037/0022–3514.81.6.1058.

Watson-Jones, R.E., Whitehouse, H., & Legare, C.H. (2015). In-group ostra­cism increases high-fidelity imit­a­tion in early child­hood. Psychological Science, 27(1), 34–42. doi: 10.1177/0956797615607205

Wesselman, E.D., & Williams, K.D. (2013). Ostracism and stages of cop­ing. In C.N. DeWall (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion (20–30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

White, L.O., Klein, A.M., von Klitzing, K., Graneist, A., Otto, Y., Hill, J., Over, H., Fonagy,P., & Crowley, M.J. (2016). Putting ostra­cism into per­spect­ive: Young chil­dren tell more men­tal­ist­ic stor­ies after exclu­sion, but not when anxious. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1–15. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01926

Williams, K.D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425–452. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085641.

Wölfer, R., & Scheithauer, H. (2013). Ostracism in child­hood and adoles­cence: Emotional, cog­nit­ive, and beha­vi­or­al effects of social exclu­sion. Social Influence, 8(4), 217–236. doi: 10.1080/15534510.2012.706233