Friendships and Self-Discipline: A Two-Way Street (page 2)
In our book Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child to Become More Responsible, Confident, and Resilient,” published by McGraw-Hill, Dr. Sam Goldstein and I describe the impact of self-discipline on our lives. In this article we address the essential connection between self-discipline and friendships.”
Self-Discipline and the Demands of Our Society
In our previous article we emphasized that the need to develop and effectively harness self-discipline at any age, while critical in all societies, takes on greater relevance in a society replete with complex demands, challenges, and stresses. The possession of and ability to effectively utilize self-discipline paves a successful road into adulthood. Thus, it is not surprising that in our fast-paced, seemingly chaotic world children capable of implementing self-discipline at a young age appear to negotiate the maze of family, school, friends, and community more successfully than those who struggle with self-control. Effective self-discipline implies that a child has internalized a set of rules so that even without the presence of a parent or other caregiver the child will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner. Self-discipline can be understood as a vital component of a sense of ownership and responsibility for one's behavior.
A lack of self-discipline impacts all areas of our lives, not the least of which are our interpersonal relationships. This impact is demonstrated by the experiences of nine-year-old Alex who wanders the playground during recess. Intermittently he makes rather forceful attempts to join the activities of others. He approaches a group of boys playing soccer, runs up to the ball, and kicks it away. One of the other children pushes him and tells him to go away. He wanders off, feeling confused, angry, and sad.
Alex experiences this type of scenario repeatedly on the playground, in the classroom, and even in his home with siblings. In our clinical work, it is the rule rather than the exception that impulsive, poorly self-disciplined children struggle with peer relationships. Interestingly, many of these youngsters often know what to do but don't use this knowledge in a consistent, predictable, and independent way. After the fact, many of these youngsters can identify more effective ways of interacting with their peers, but unfortunately, their impulsivity and limited capacity to reflect upon the details of the social situation eventuates in behaviors that are counterproductive and lead to peer rejection rather than peer acceptance.
For years we subscribed to the view that the source of their socialization problem was what might be termed uni-directional—that is, the child's poor self-discipline was at the root of his or her behaving in ways that precluded the development of satisfying friendships. However, we now believe that this uni-directional perspective is too narrow and does not capture the full picture. Social rejection as described in Alex's situation often elicits negative emotions and a negative perception of self. In turn, this negativity may trigger angry, aggressive, and out-of-control behavior, setting in motion a vicious cycle of poor self-discipline, rejection, loneliness, and anger. This broader view, which has significant implications for intervention strategies, suggests that the relationship between self-discipline and appropriate social interaction is a two-way street with each influencing the other. In fact, it is our opinion that loneliness in children quickly leads to sadness, which then sets the foundation for angry, poorly self-disciplined actions.
Social Interactions and Self-Discipline: A Complex Relationship
Efforts at evaluating risk factors that might lead to anger and a lack of self-discipline in youth (e.g., those who display violent outbursts in school) find a consistent, common theme, namely, that these youth are socially isolated, unconnected to peers in their educational settings, and in many cases bullied. For a number of years psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University have evaluated the effects of social rejection on self-discipline.
Baumeister found that social rejection is not simply a product of limited self-discipline skills, but that social rejection actually serves to undermine self-regulation and self-discipline, increasing the likelihood of angry, negative behaviors. Not surprisingly, he also found that there is a significant component of altruism and empathy required for pro-social behavior. When social connections are absent, empathy, altruism, and self-discipline all suffer. As Baumeister points out, even if a child has developed the capacity for self-discipline, the experience of social exclusion may undermine the use of self-control and the display of appropriate behaviors with others. In the model proposed by Baumeister, the relationship between poor social relationships and self-discipline is not as simple as "a lack of self-discipline results in behaviors that lead to negative interactions with others." Rather, when children are confronted by social rejection, they are vulnerable to engaging in impulsive, self-centered, poorly regulated, and at times destructive behaviors.
If children who were not prone towards a pattern of poor self-discipline manifest this behavior in the face of social rejection, it would appear that children with existing self-discipline problems are at even greater risk for loneliness and anger. This latter group often finds themselves trapped in a vicious cycle in which social relations suffer, leading to further dissolution of self-discipline and self-regulation. This pattern, for example, has been observed repeatedly in research with children with a diagnosis of ADHD.
In another series of studies, Baumeister applied two basic manipulations to explore social rejection in adults. In the first, a small group of individuals were brought together for a brief discussion. At the end of the discussion participants were asked to privately name one other participant with whom they would like to continue working. In the social acceptance condition the researchers then told participants that all of the other participants chose them. In the social rejection condition they told participants that none chose them. In the second manipulation participants were given personality tests and told either that people with their profiles tended to be surrounded by friends as they grow older or that people with their profiles tended to become increasingly isolated.
The results were intriguing. People who were in the "socially rejected" group demonstrated higher levels of antisocial and self-defeating self-reports than those who were in the "socially accepted" group. Baumeister's experiments revealed that social rejection renders people more vulnerable to aggression. It also makes them more likely to cheat, place risky bets, procrastinate, and struggle to delay gratification and less likely to help others and choose healthy behaviors. All of these activities are in part driven by poor self-discipline. The data further suggested that people who were rejected also scored lower on an intelligence measure! Social exclusion appears to produce significant adverse changes in behavior leading to a variety of maladaptive, pathological, and undesirable patterns.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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