Grandma’s View: Gammy it hurts! Emotional pain is real

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“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

That old chestnut may have helped many children survive elementary school dust-ups, but it turns out, it may be wrong.

When our kids’ feelings are hurt, we feel their pain and try to help them feel better about themselves. We’re concerned about their emotional pain. However, a new study from the University of Michigan shows that there is a physical component.

Psychologist Ethan Kriss says that spilling a cup of hot coffee on yourself and experiencing rejection or humiliation would seem to elicit very different types of pain. But the new research shows that they can be more similar than previously thought.

Participants in the study were hooked up to a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (MRI) that evaluated various areas of the brain that had been identified in earlier studies of physical pain. Then they compared the results to 500 previous MRI studies of brain responses to physical pain, emotion, working memory, attention switching and long-term memory.

Voilà! Powerful feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain!

Maybe we have instinctively known this because language has developed that is remarkably accurate. Think of the inherent wisdom of cultures around the world that use words such as ‘hurt’ and ‘pain’ to describe both physical pain and social rejection.

So when a grandchild says, “Gammy, they really hurt my feelings,” I know that he’s hurting on two levels and that a big hug may not be enough to make the pain go away.

Generally speaking, most of my opinions about my grandchildren’s parenting remain unexpressed. “I’ve learned through experience that even “why” can be a loaded word.) But I want constant reassurance that my grandchildren aren’t the victims of bullying – giving or getting – so I am aggressively intrusive on that front.

When I hear one of them talk about someone in their class who is different in some way, I zero in.

“Is everyone nice to her?”
“Do you ever invite her to sit with you at lunch?”
“Have you ever seen or heard kids being mean to other kids?”
“If you did, what would you do about it?”

Then there’s the other side of the coin.
“Who are your best friends at school?”
“Who do you sit with at lunch?”
“What’s the best and worst thing about school?”
“What’s the best and worst thing that happened at school today?”

It isn’t always their answers that tell a tale. It’s the enthusiasm or the evasiveness when they talk about their school experience that can tell a story.

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