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Rejection and how you can help

Whether intentional or not, the effects of rejection in childhood may include fear of intimacy, distrust, anxiety and depression, and people-pleasing behaviours. Feelings of confusion and emotional pain from rejection may lead to attachment challenges, ineffective coping mechanisms, or an overall sense of loneliness.

According to the parental acceptance-rejection theory (PARTheory), the important thing is whether the child perceives this as true, not whether a third party observes this to be true.

Parental rejection is the absence or significant withdrawal of warmth, love, and affection by parents/carers using physically or psychologically hurtful behaviours or emotions. It can be experienced by four types of expressions or parenting styles:

  • Cold and unaffectionate
  • Hostile and aggressive
  • Indifferent and neglecting
  • Undifferentiated rejecting – when a child believes their parents do not really care about or love them, regardless of whether they show clear signs of neglect, unaffection, or aggression.

Parental rejection may show in physical distancing – the absence of hugs, kisses, hand-holding, or supportive gestures. It can also be emotional – a lack of comforting, encouragement, sympathy, empathy, or emotional availability.

Children don’t often have the perspective and maturity to understand that rejection will have nothing to do with them and everything to do with the adult, who may indeed have their own set of circumstances that has led to their parenting approach.

If your child has experienced persistent rejection in childhood, they may now fear emotional intimacy, have low self-esteem, or have anxiety symptoms. These effects can shape personality and relationships now and in adulthood, leading to both physical and emotional pain.

Short-term effects of rejection
“Children are extremely self-centred – not by choice; by the mere fact that they have no perspective,” explains Julia Samton, a board certified psychiatrist and neurologist in New York City. “Without any substantial life experience, they interpret any rejection as their fault.”

This self-blame can have immediate and long-term impacts. Leading to:

  • emotional pain
  • rejection or negative emotion sensitivity
  • mental exhaustion
  • sadness
  • confusion
  • feeling lonely
  • becoming withdrawn
  • declining academic performance
  • acting out
  • attention seeking behaviours

Over time, Samton notes that constant rejection may cause more specific challenges.  Physical rejection, like pushing a child away when they come in for a hug, may lead to:

  • self-isolation
  • depression
  • self-reliance
  • guarded interactions
  • rejection of physical affection from others
  • angry outbursts

Emotional rejection, like being persistently humiliated and criticised, may lead a child to experience:

  • emotional repression (low ability to express how they feel)
  • disdain of signs of vulnerability in others
  • unkind treatment toward other children showing emotionality
  • symptoms of childhood depression
  • sense of loneliness
  • people-pleasing behaviours
  • emotional avoidance
  • low self-esteem
  • symptoms of childhood anxiety
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • attention-seeking behaviours (adequate or otherwise)
  • learned helplessness
  • avoidant coping behaviours (substance use, compulsive video game playing, or television watching)
  • insecure attachment style

The effects of physical and emotional rejection during childhood are often overlapping. While physical rejection may lead to certain behaviours regarding physical engagement, it may also have an emotional impact.

Rejected child syndrome
Rejected child syndrome isn’t a formal diagnosis. It’s a term used to describe situations where children perceive extreme rejection. They may sense their parents dislike them, don’t want them, or wish they weren’t a part of their lives.

Long-term effects of rejection
As an adult, the effects of rejection in childhood are often explained by attachment theory, which suggests your first relationship experiences in childhood have a direct effect on your adult bonds.

“Rejected children often grow up to experience difficult self-relationships, including self-doubt, self-neglect, self-sabotage, and self-hate,” says Stephani Jahn, PhD, a licensed mental health counsellor in Earleton, Florida. “They can maintain a sense of unworthiness, which can hinder them in relationships, school, work, and even leisure.”

What can we do for them
As the carers of children who suffer the effects of rejection or perceived rejection you can help them to heal by creating new, nurturing experiences. We don’t want our children to develop an identity of rejection that will make life harder for them. We don’t want our children’s personalities to develop around their fear of rejection. Our children want to be loved by us and we want to love them. All we really have to do… is mean it and show it. You don’t have to be perfect. Let me put it this way…you don’t have to be happy and cheerful, always have an even temper, or sit and read for hours to your kids. You just need to be around, emotionally available and free with your feelings and praise.

The opposite action to rejecting is accepting:
To make a child feel accepted…

  • Purposefully talk to them
  • Listen to them
  • Hear their hearts (imagine what they are feeling)
  • Take them seriously
  • Make time for them
  • Be genuine
  • Be available

No one is perfect and you don’t need to pretend to be perfect for your children. The essence of acceptance is that children feel they are loved based on their position as your child whatever your relationship, not on their performance.

If you can manage that, you are doing well!

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