Social Pain occurs whenever a child experiences hurt to their sense of self as it relates to social perceptions or the way they think others think about them. Social pain is an aspect of many (if not most) hurtful experiences.
Types of Social Pain Children Experience
Social pain comes in many forms:
There are also two main avenues to deliver social pain:
Implicit Social Pain
Implicit social pain is social/emotional hurt that is inherent to the action or situation. For instance, if I slap a child, that action is going to cause the child to feel an acute social pain from the experience without anyone having to say or do anything else to aggravate the situation. Striking a child is a direct act of hostility, and so even if it leaves no physical injury, it results in social pain. The child feels hurt, rejected, and insecure. They feel devalued by the adult, since they instinctually believe that one does not try to hurt or injure what one values and cares about. Teasing or verbal abuse is another area with implicit social injury. Being made fun of or belittled by others will cause a child to feel hurt and rejected. All acts of aggression, rejection, or hostility, whether verbal or physical, create implicit social pain. They are actions that attack our identity as a person.
Manufactured Social Pain
Manufactured social pain is something added to the situation afterwards or otherwise created by outside forces, and REQUIRES THAT A NEGATIVE INTERPRETATION OF AN EXPERIENCE BE INTRODUCED that wasn’t a part of the child’s natural or initial reaction. For instance, nearly all of the lasting harm from sexual abuse involves manufactured social pain. Most cases of molestation involve an adult engaging a child in sexual interactions or sexual affection, not violence or aggression. Research shows that children’s responses range from finding such acts pleasurable and enjoyable at one end; being curious or indifferent to them at the mid range; to finding them embarrassing or uncomfortable on the negative end. (GCF, 2009) However, even in cases where the child finds the acts negative, there is rarely any overt hostility involved, (the person isn’t trying to injure the child and usually isn’t acting aggressively) so there is also rarely any implicit social pain. This, however, often changes due to outside influences.
Along come parents and other well-meaning but reckless do-gooders who add destructive meaning to the experience and manufacture or create social pain that never had to be. They tell the child how “dirty” and “evil” and “shameful” and “embarrassing” such an experience should be. They say horrible and baseless things such as “my child’s innocence was stolen.” They act distraught and horrified. Naturally, the child picks up on this emotional climate and becomes ashamed, embarrassed, and disturbed themselves. They took part in a “shameful” thing. They are tainted now; dirtied and forever marked by such contact.
Then you have the biggest monster of all: the media. They are bombarded with negative messages from their surroundings that are intended to provoke feelings of despair, victimization, anger and grief. Naturally, the child learns to think of themselves as less of a person. All of these things add social pain to the child’s perception of what occurred. In the many cases where a child felt even some degree of pleasurable sensations from such acts (a child’s genitals are just as prone to pleasurable stimulation as are an adult’s), this piles all of that scorn intended for the molester onto their own shoulders. “If I found such an evil act interesting or exciting, I must be evil too,” the child reasons. Further social harm is added by the conflict that arises between the child’s parents and the perpetrator. The end result is that social hurt is rampant among sexual abuse victims even though this social shame has nothing to do with the act itself or the child’s original experience. Others added it in afterwards, essentially abusing the child themselves through emotional means. It’s extremely important that parents pay close attention to the possibility of manufactured social pain, because not only is it a big component of many negative experiences, but it’s the one form of injury that is completely avoidable and within their control.
How Children are Harmed by Social-Emotional Things
Regardless of whether social pain is implicit or explicit, it has the potential to be extremely destructive. It’s by far the leading cause of psychological injury to children and adults alike. Social stress is particularly worrisome because if it isn’t addressed and comforted, it doesn’t die. It’s routinely conjured up at any moment, with or without any significant new event. When social injuries go uncomforted or improperly addressed, each time the child merely thinks about it afterwards they can become consumed with social stress that can be every bit as strong as the original event. In fact, because memory is malleable (we change a memory each time it is recalled) social pain has the potential to get MUCH WORSE if a child is exposed to negative ideas about a particular event or experience. If a child is abused by a parent, for instance, and this social injury goes uncomforted, or worse, gets aggravated through manufactured social pain by others, every time the child hears about fathers, sees kids playing with fathers at a park, or watches a Law & Order episode about parental abuse, this unresolved social pain can come flooding back. If thoughts or environmental cues cause this flood of negative social energy three times a week for months and years to come, that’s a lot of stress that can take a toll. It’s why properly resolving social pain is so important.
Research also shows that cortisol (the stress chemical) spikes to higher levels and stays on the brain for longer periods of time under social stress than it does for other stressors. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) Furthermore, as we just discussed, merely recalling such an event is enough to send stress levels spiking. Both social pain and physical pain has been shown to originate in the same area of the brain, and social pain has been shown to be just as excruciating as physical pain. (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) This illustrates an important concept we’ll discuss later in this chapter: ideas matter much more than actions do, and are capable of delivering just as much pain.