Teens scared to death of being embarrassed (Literally! Sort of)

“Oh, come on! It’s not that big of a deal.” Sometimes it seems like teens just exaggerate their social fears. Educators may want to roll their eyes and say, “Get over it! There’s so many more important things.” It turns out there’s more to it than teens being scared little drama-queens/kings.

I’ve been working with a developmental theory for a while now, but I was recently pleased to discover that it’s true. (It’s always nice when that happens). It goes like this: The fear of social rejection is strongly rooted in our evolutionary development. For tens of thousands of years, humans have survived and thrived by living in communities. It became so important to our development as a species, that survival became impossible outside of our local group. Being ostracised from a community/tribe/clan meant certain death and thus the risk of this was very very scary.

Things are more complicated today. We still need each other, but in a far less direct way. Getting kicked out of a social group, doesn’t mean we wander out into the wilderness alone and die. But considering our 200,000 years of human development, we’re not that far away from that time when that was true. For most of our development, the risk of being socially rejected triggered a serious and very real fear of death.

It’s still with us. We fear social rejection like we fear death. And since many of the emotions that teenagers feel are amplified, they feel this way more than we do.

During the early teen years, the social-emotional circuitry of the limbic system becomes amplified, and teens suddenly feel their own feelings more intensely, are more sensitive to others, and have “higher highs and lower lows.” But the seat of their self-control, the frontal cortex, doesn’t fully consolidate until the mid-twenties.  (Divecha)

The teenage brain’s assumption that social rejection means death explains some of their poor decision-making. We all know that teens can make astronomically bad choices and sometimes frivolously throw away long-term gain to avoid mere moments of social exclusion. It’s remarkable what they are willing to throw away for social acceptance during their four short years of high school. But it makes sense. Evolutionarily, this is a good decision. Immediate survival is more important than long-term goals. In fact, this order of preference is hardwired into our brains. If the brain senses immediate life-threatening danger, it shuts down the higher-order reasoning centres of the brain and prepares the body for fight or flight. “There’s no time to think,” the brain says to the body, “we’re going to run or rumble!”

This is what a teen is feeling whenever they are embarrassed in your classroom. It’s not a lot different from what they would feel if you were holding them over a cliff ledge. It may sound crazy to adults, but that’s how the amplified emotions of a teenager function.

fMRI’s reveal that emotional pain, such as that felt because of social rejection, triggers the same pain centres of the brain that physical pain does.

Now of course they aren’t being held over a cliff, most of these problems actually aren’t that big of a deal, and they should be making better decisions based on long-term goals. As teachers we need to help them see through their feeling that these are life-and-death issues. But we also need to be sensitive to that fact that the feeling is very real, and very intense. Any insensitive approach that embarrasses students is cruel and will not help them learn.

As a person in a position to urge teachers towards the use of technology in the classroom, I think some help can be found in various tech tools, especially giving students a medium to safely communicate with the teacher without embarrassment. But overall, there isn’t any one particular thing that can make the pathological fear of social rejection easier for students; teachers just need to be aware of it. It needs to be on the radar whenever we are about to make a decision that could potentially embarrass a student in front of his peers. Since it scares them half to death, and it also turns off their higher thinking skills, we might want to stop doing that if we want to help them learn.

Divecha, Diana. “Greater Good.” A Journey into the Teenage Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_journey_into_the_teenage_brain>.

Weir, Kirsten. “The pain of social rejection.” http://www.apa.org. American Psychological Association , n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx>.

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