Sigma Xi lecture elucidates child behavior

Last Thursday and Friday afternoon in Wege Auditorium, Marlene Sandstrom, professor of psychology, delivered the fall Sigma Xi lecture. Her talk, titled “They Like Me, They Like Me Not: Peer Relations in Childhood,” focused on the causes and consequences of peer rejection, highlighting some of Sandstrom’s own research on how children perceive and respond to rejection from peers.

On the first day of her lecture, Sandstrom began with a William James quote that says, “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind.” Sandstrom went on to note the human tendency to “figure out who we are through other people.” In childhood, children spend much of the day in the company of peers who shape children’s senses of themselves.

“For some children, peer support is really elusive,” Sandstrom said, chronicling the line of research on childhood peer relations that emerged in the 1970s, focused in part on the tragedies of school shootings. “The phenomenon of children being ostracized and victimized is present in nearly every school,” she said.

According to Sandstrom, there are broad types of rejected children, which she listed as aggressive/disruptive, inattentive/immature, anxious/avoidant and low in prosocial behavior. She noted that while some children are rejected just for “being different,” their social behavior often plays a significant role.

While the causes of rejection can be varied, Sandstrom said, “Once you’ve got a child who finds she’s rejected by peers, it can quickly become a complicated problem that is self-perpetuating and hard to find a way out of.” Chronic peer rejection is associated with negative outcomes in school like truancy and academic difficulties, as well as delinquent behaviors and psychopathologies such as anxiety and depression.

The second day of Sandstrom’s lecture focused on several of her own studies on peer rejection in children. She prefaced her work by noting that many intervention programs for social difficulties are inadequate. “There is surprisingly little data on what it’s like to be disliked and have to go to school every day,” she said.

The first study sought to analyze the relationship between peer sentiment and peer treatment, asking “How does overt dislike translate to overt mistreatment?”

“As soon as you get a researcher in the room, kids will act differently,” Sandstrom said. “The things I was interested in happened when adults weren’t there.” To circumvent this observer effect, Sandstrom had children complete a daily diary citing specific events of physical and social victimization. “Kids who are widely disliked by their peers reported more negative treatment,” she concluded.

A second study sought to measure children’s sensitivity to rejection, asking, “What happens in the moment when the child feels they are being rejected?” Children were asked about responses to hypothetical rejection and were also exposed to a real-world experience of rejection. Sandstrom found that children’s responses in “cold,” or hypothetical, and “hot,” or real-life, situations were not at all correlated.
Further analysis of these results revealed significant gender differences, not just in the children’s rejection sensitivity but the effects of that sensitivity on their behavior. According to Sandstrom, “rejected girls wonder, ‘What is wrong with me?’ Rejected boys say, ‘What is wrong with them that makes them treat me unfairly?’”

Another study further analyzed rejection sensitivity, attempting to relate it to aggression. The study, which utilized a “noise blast” paradigm that allowed children to “punish” peers who rejected them, allowed researchers to measure a child’s response to negative feedback. A follow-up study suggested that children with high explicit self-esteem but low implicit self-esteem were rated as most aggressive. “Kids with an overinflated exterior sense of self but underlying concerns are more likely to lash out,” Sandstrom said.

Sandstrom pointed out that both a lack of awareness of social cues and hyper-vigilance to such cues can both be problematic for children, noting that there needs to be a healthy balance between being ignorant to peer sentiment and being overly sensitive. She also expressed the belief that children need to be taught two sets of skills, one for “the heat of the moment” and one that integrates a “global perspective,” making children aware of their social difficulties and helping them to take ownership of them.

Sandstrom closed her lecture by discussing the potential impact of research on interventions for children. “Not all rejected children should be treated the same way,” she said, adding that “boys and girls can process rejection cues differently.” Eventually, she suggested, targeted interventions could take advantage of individual differences to help children interact in adaptive ways. “Interventions aren’t something you do to someone,” she said. “You can have the best intervention program in the world, but these have to be collaborative processes.”