In The Minds of Our Children

Dr. Sam Goldstein

The late Dr. Julius Segal coined the term charismatic adult to describe adults from whom a child gathers strength. Segal defined the role of a charismatic adult further to note that this person is someone a child identifies with.

The child knows that the adult holds a special place in his heart and mind for them. Segal’s ideas are supported by several studies of adults with childhood histories of risk, including those of abuse, neglect and school failure. One of the most important phenomena these individuals cite as helping them overcome life’s adversities was having at least one adult in their lives that generally cared about and loved them. There was at least one adult who was an advocate for them, especially in difficult times. This phenomenon is also true for children who do not face significant risk and adversity. Just last week while traveling on an airplane, I struck up a conversation with the middle-aged woman sitting next to me. As we talked about her work and mine she was particularly intrigued by the idea of a charismatic adult. She commented that her maternal grandfather was such an individual for her. Even years after he passed away, when she faces difficult times or has an important decision to make she thinks about what her grandfather would advise or tell her to do and tries to follow that guidance.

The foundation of these types of relationships is a strong bond or connection between a child and adult. But the importance of connections between all human beings extends far beyond just this type of relationship. The need to belong, feel accepted and part of a group is likely one of the most powerful human drives, evolving over hundreds of thousands of years in our species. Further, the extent to which some individuals will take their behavior or actions to belong can be surprising and at times disturbing.

In a recent study, Elizabeth Allen and Mary Madden of the University of Maine completed a survey of hazing in high schools, discovering nearly 50% of youth report being hazed. Hazing included silly stunts and drinking games with 8% of these youth drinking to the point of getting sick or passing out. In addition, these researchers found that hazing activities had become increasingly more sexually charged. Students endure the hazing because it serves as a gateway or entry pass allowing them to connect to and associate with a particular group of individuals. Hazing is not bullying. Bullying is behavior exhibited by one individual towards another with a desire to hurt, harm and exclude. Hazing, on the other hand, while it may hurt or harm is designed as a “rite of passage”, to include not exclude. Not surprisingly, Allen and Madden’s research finds the highest rates of hazing among high school sports team members, bands and performing organizations.

 What happens to human beings, any species for that matter, when they are excluded and not allowed to connect with others? Infants who are not provided with a specific caretaker often fail to thrive and develop a condition identified many years ago as marasmus. At the University of Sydney, Australia, Lisa Zadro demonstrated that when people feel ostracized they report higher rates of depression, eating disorders, promiscuity and even attempted suicide. It also appears that long-term rejection can have disastrous consequences in the form of anger and aggression. It has been suspected that as many as four out of five school shooters may have suffered from prolonged peer rejection. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues at Florida State University have demonstrated the power and motivation of the need to belong. They found that when a person is rejected everything from empathy to intelligent thought suffers. They also found that in situations in which connections to others were limited some youth would go to extremes to be connected and belong. Others would withdraw, while still others would become angry and aggressive. Dr. Baumeister and his colleagues demonstrated that college students were more likely to be aggressive after they were told that a personality test indicated they would eventually spend their lives alone. As Baumeister and his colleagues pointed out, there appears to be an abandonment of self-regulation, self-discipline, values and even morals when people are rejected, leading a significant group towards anti-social and aggressive behavior.

Twelve years ago, psychologist Kip Williams at the University of Toledo engaged in an interesting experiment. Each day for five days, Williams hung a scarlet letter over someone’s door indicating that others in the group would ignore the “branded” colleague for the day. There was to be no talking, no eye contact and no recognition. Williams found that this form of ostracism made all participants miserable, including those doing the ostracism. These researchers also found that ostracism triggers the same areas of the brain that are active when people feel physical pain – the brain’s dorsal lateral cortex. Thus, it is the case that similar parts of the brain and often in similar ways process psychological and physical pain. As a species we are extremely sensitive to being socially rejected. Being connected and belonging is a powerful human drive because our survival has long depended on being included and accepted.

Stress and adversity also increases the need for acceptance. It is not surprising that the rates of psychiatric problems, particularly depression, continue to increase from one generation to the next. We live in a world that has become supercharged with stress. Physiological research has clearly demonstrated that our bodies today are at a much higher stress level than ever before. Further, children appear to be worried about more potentially severe adverse phenomena than ever before. A recent study by Joy Burnham at the University of Alabama, reported on data collected in more than 1,000 youth, grades two through twelve, in twenty-three schools in two southeastern states. Dr. Burnham asked these youth what they were afraid of. In children seven to ten years of age, being kidnapped, death, Aids, not being able to breathe and being threatened by a gun were the top five. In youth eleven to fourteen, Aids, not being able to breathe, being kidnapped, being raped and being threatened with a gun were the top five. Finally, in fifteen to eighteen-year-olds, Aids, being raped, not being able to breathe, being threatened with a gun and dying were the top five. Many children in this study expressed fears related to where they lived, such as fears of tornadoes. Many of these youth were also asked to write down their ideas about what makes them or people they know their age fearful or afraid. They also included issues related to safety, school snipers and explosions.

In his acceptance award from the American Psychological Association for Distinguished Scientific Contribution in 2004, psychologist Sheldon Cohen argued that social variables related to support and connections to others was significantly associated with health outcomes. Dr. Cohen opined that these variables might influence health through different mechanisms but that the association between support, connections with others and general health did not reflect random findings or those attributable simply to lifestyle or personality differences.

In a time when more and more members of our society feel increasingly isolated and disconnected from others, these data provide a strong basis for the argument that to be happy, healthy and resilient requires general connections to others. In the Power of Resilience, our 2004 book authored to help readers achieve balance, confidence and personal strength in their lives, we argued that developing and maintaining connections to others as an active not passive process. We asked readers to pose the following questions to themselves and consider their answers:

  1. Where are your current connections located? How well balanced are they?
  2. Who are the five people in your life with whom you feel most connected? In what ways do you feel connected to each?
  3. What do you do to express this feeling of connectedness and keep them vibrant and alive?
  4. In addition to your relationship with people, what are three other things in your life to which you feel connected? Through participating in these activities you further foster and create social networks.

These questions can equally be applied to our children. I urge readers whether parent, educator, mental health consultant or even athletic coach to consider how through daily interactions with your children you foster these connections. If your children appear disconnected, isolated or alienated from others, the answers to these questions can be used to begin formulating workable solutions. As Dr. Brooks and I have written, the centrality of connectedness and compassion in our lives is reflected not only in the number of authors who have spoken and written so eloquently about these themes but in the wide ranging data reviewed in this article. When we provide our children with opportunities to develop healthy connections, we plant the seeds and nurture the roots of emotional and physical health as well as hope.