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The link between being bullied, social rejection and school shootings

In light of the increased awareness of school shootings, many people are wondering what is happening…and why? While there is heightened tension about the causes of school violence, consider stepping back and looking at a broader set of contributing factors.

The problem with school violence is not simple. It is also not new. Shootings on school grounds have been occurring since before this country became a nation. The frequency of school shootings remains about the same as it was in the 1990s—just 20 years ago. But several things have changed. Technology has created the opportunity for social media platforms to spread the word quickly. We are paying more attention to this issue than we did 20 years ago.

As human beings, we are tempted to look for simple explanations. We seek out direct causal connections to understand school shootings. It is not just guns. It is not only mental illness. It is sometimes linked to first-person shooter video gaming. In about two-thirds of the cases, it appears to be linked to the experience of bullying or social rejection.

In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 that left 12 students, one teacher and both shooters dead, the United States Secret Service and Department of Education issued a report (2002) that examined 34 school shootings that occurred in the 1990s. A factor common in many of the shooters' perceptions was that they had been severely bullied or socially excluded from the group that they sought to belong to. Nearly two decades later, this has not changed.

We know that a sense of belonging is one of the most powerful human experiences. It drives us to follow the rules so that we can belong. But what happens when, no matter how hard a child tries, they still fail at being a part of the group? What happens when they quit trying to belong?

Much has been written about the experience of being ostracized and socially excluded. In the past two decades, science has made significant advances in our understanding of the pain that is experienced when we are socially excluded—when we are made to feel that we are not welcome—that we don't belong. Evidence is mounting that there is a common neural overlap between emotional pain and physical pain. In other words, our brains experience and process these two forms of pain in similar ways in the same region of the brain.
Eisenberger, Lieberman, Williams (2003).

While sticks and stones can break our bones, names (being bullied) can hurt even deeper. For example, when children feel socially excluded, there is evidence that their emotion system (that ability to experience empathy and compassion for others) stops functioning normally. DeWall,2009, Twenge, 2005.

Social exclusion can impair a person's ability to show empathy toward others. Twenge et al 2007, Batson et al, 1995. This emotional numbness can cause a child to interpret their experiences with others as largely negative. When kids are rejected by their peers, expelled by their schools and isolated from their social group, they suffer pain. When kids don't feel that they belong, and that they will never belong, they have nothing left to lose. If a child does not belong, why follow the rules?

More than any time in history, we have the voices of our children joining us in protest. Their voices are leading a movement for change. We must be careful not to make this a singularly polarizing issue of guns, mental health or violent video games. Lasting change can only happen when all children feel like they have strong friendship and relationship connections—when they belong.

Strong social and relationship connections are the best intervention to keep our schools safe and our children healthy. Kids learn most effectively in the context of safe and healthy relationships. Relationship skills can be taught by parents, teachers and other community members. Relationship skills are practiced in homes, classrooms, at the bus stop, on the playground and at parks.

Schools have traditionally been tasked with teaching the three Rs: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic to our children. Schools do so much more than this. They prepare children for life. Let's make a fourth R—Relationships—the priority that it needs to be.


Jeff Reiland, MS, Child and Family Therapist, Gundersen Health System

Jeffrey Reiland

1900 South Ave.
La Crosse, WI 54601

(608) 782-7300

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