My father walked out on my mother when I was eight. Always highly disturbed, my mother became yet worse and threw me out of the house when I was thirteen. This made it necessary for me to go and live with my father and his new wife, where I was not wanted. Indeed, the sense of this was unremittingly palpable. So, what are the long-term effects of parental rejection?
It pretty much goes without saying that both a mother’s and father’s acceptance of, and love for, their child is of paramount importance in relation to (to give just 4 examples):
– how the child’s personality develops
– his self-image
– his self-esteem
– how he learns to relate to others
Being rejected by parent/s can have an enormously negative effect upon each of these. Not only can these effects last throughout childhood, but, without therapy, can extend years and years into adulthood; in fact, they can last a lifetime.
Ronald Rohner, of the University of Connecticut, an expert on the effects of parental rejection, is quoted as saying the following on the subject :
‘In our half-century of international research, we’ve not found any other class of experience that has a strong and consistent effect upon personality development as does the experience of being rejected, especially by parents in childhood. Children and adults everywhere, regardless of differences in race, culture and gender, tend to respond in exactly the same way when they perceive themselves to be rejected by their caregivers and other attachment figures.’
A major part of Ronald Rohner’s research was to carry out a meta-analysis (an analysis of a large number of studies – in this case, 36 involving about 10,000 participants) of research, that had already been conducted by others, upon the effects of parental rejection. This analysis revealed, amongst many other things, the following :
1) the pain of having experienced parental rejection during childhood tends to extend into adulthood
2) those who have suffered parental rejection in childhood tend to develop difficulties forming trusting relationships in adulthood
3) neurological studies (studies of the physical brain), such as Eisenberger et al., 2004, suggest that parental rejection activates the same part of the brain which is activated by the experience of physical pain. as there appears to be a common neural alarm system that responds to both physical and social pain. (I myself remember telling various psychiatrists that I felt a perpetual extreme pain in my head, and, at the time, though I was going crazy, especially as they offered no explanation. I am now relieved to have discovered the likely cause).
Indeed, Rohner goes on to explain that this type of pain can go on for years. This happened in my own case; I was almost totally incapacitated – I very rarely left my flat, stopped practising even the most basic form of self-care, was unable to read, or even watch television.
A NOTE ON FATHERS :
Contrary to popular belief, the effects of a father’s rejection of a child can have at least as powerful an adverse effect on the child’s psychological development as rejection by the mother, according to Rohner’s review of the available evidence.
Compounding the ill-effects of parental rejection, because of the psychological damage it can do to the child, such children may develop interpersonal problems at school and, consequently, experience PEER REJECTION, too. I briefly discuss this below :
PEER REJECTION COMPOUNDING THE PSYCHOLOGICAL DAMAGE DONE BY PARENTAL REJECTION :
The Implicit Social Hierarchy :
In schools, it is unavoidable that children will be judged by their peers in relation to their perceived likability/popularity/desirability/acceptability etc. so that, in effect, they are informally and implicitly ‘assigned’ a position in the social hierarchy.
Social Exclusion And Effects On Self-Esteem :
The way in which we were affected by such judgment by our peers when we were at school (our sensitivity to the acceptance/exclusion process tends to peak in middle school which coincides with the period in our lives when we are trying to discover our own personalities, independent of our family) has a significant effect upon how our self-esteem develops and this effect can extend well into adulthood, or even endure for a lifetime.
Responses To Social Exclusion: Aggression Or Withdrawal :
Those individuals who are chronically bullied, victimized and/or ostracized by their peers at school frequently respond in one of two ways: by becoming aggressive or by withdrawing.
An aggressive response might manifest itself by being directed specifically at those who have rejected the individual, or, alternatively, by being directed at other children more generally (a form of displacement, making others the victims).
If, however, the child passively accepts his/her rejection, s/he is likely to become socially withdrawn, sad and depressed.
A Study On The Link Between Peer Rejection And Increased Aggressive Behaviour :
A study by Dodge et al. (2003) showed that rejection by peers in early elementary school was correlated with increased antisocial behaviour later on (however, it should be noted that, in this study, the correlation was only significant among children who, prior to experiencing rejection by peers, were already displaying a greater than normal propensity to behave in an antisocial manner). The study also found that this effect applied equally to both male and female students.
The researchers involved in this study also suggested that the increase in students’ propensity to behave in antisocial ways following rejection by their peers could, in large part, be attributed to the fact that their experience of having been rejected had caused them to develop ‘biased patterns of processing social information’ (for example, in this study it was found that these rejected students were more likely misinterpret a neutral or non-hostile social signal as being hostile). Indeed, the child rejected by his peers may become hypervigilant to any potential signs of hostility directed towards him/her by others. (Cognitive therapy can be very helpful in helping people to overcome biased informational processing).
On a more positive note, the researchers of this study also suggested that even a relatively low, but stable, level of positive regard by peers during childhood can have a very significant ‘buffering’ effect on the later development antisocial behaviour (i.e. make such a development less likely to occur).
Rejection, Shame And School Massacres :
Although it is extremely rare, according to research conducted by Leary et al., 2006, students who carry out (or attempt to carry out) school massacres have very frequently been socially rejected and shamed by their peers prior to committing (or attempting to commit) the atrocity.
The Lingering Effects Of Shame :
Being made to feel shame as a child can frequently lead to a profound sense of being intrinsically and irreparably ‘flawed’ as a person, unworthy of love or respect; such self-loathing can (in the absence of effective therapy) last well into adulthood or even for an entire lifetime.
Shame And Alcoholism :
Research by Brown (2006) has found that females who have experienced significant and chronic feelings of shame as children are at much-increased risk of turning to alcohol as adults in an attempt to reduce the intensity of the emotional pain they feel in connection with this abiding sense of shame. Indeed, Brown suggests that such individuals can be helped to reduce their dependency on alcohol by embarking upon a therapy that helps them to overcome their shame.
Shame And Grandiosity :
Another possible response to shame is a kind of over-compensation, resulting in grandiosity and a desperate need achieve and succeed so as to gain and maintain a constant sense of external validation to help ward off deep-seated feelings of shame which continually threaten to overwhelm one. Such individuals may become highly competitive and driven to be more ‘successful’ than others, especially individuals who make up their social group, including their friends; indeed, they may adopt the mantra: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ (Gore Vidal).
The combined effects of parental and peer rejection can be excruciatingly painful, of course. In fact, because humans have evolved as social creatures, experiences of rejection are is arguably the most painful of all the psychological experiences we undergo in life, especially if our experience of rejection is chronic and severe, as the following study suggests :
STUDIES SHOW PAIN OF REJECTION CAN BE WORSE THAN PHYSICAL PAIN :
Have you ever experienced intense, almost unbearable, emotional pain and mental anguish as a result of a rejection?
I remember, on occasions in the past, trying to explain to my psychiatrist how the turmoil in my mind resembled an excruciating, almost physical, pain.
Such pain, of course, is likely to be particularly acute and devastating if that rejection comes from a parent, or, indeed, from both parents.
As I have stated in other posts on this site, I have the dubious distinction of having been rejected by both my parents on separate occasions – by my mother when I was thirteen years old and then, some years later, by my father and step-mother, making me homeless and, therefore, humiliatingly necessitating me to be taken into the home of a friend’s parents, to whom I remain grateful (incidentally, my step-mother was deeply religious and founded a charity for the homeless – Watford New Hope Trust – a cruel irony that was far from lost on me, let me assure you).
Effects Of Rejection On The Brain :
Recent studies have shown that the emotional pain of rejection activates the same area of the brain that physical pain does; the brain area involved is known as the ANTERIOR CINGULATE CORTEX.
Further evidence that the way we experience emotional pain is similar to how we experience physical pain comes from the finding that the medication Tylenol, which is taken to reduce feelings of physical pain, also ameliorates sensations of emotional pain.
Also, a study connected to Purdue University, Australia, compared two groups of individuals:
GROUP 1: were asked to recall a physically painful event that had taken place in the previous 5 years.
GROUP 2: were asked to recall an emotionally painful event which had taken place in the last 5 years.
RESULTS: Those in GROUP 2 (who relived the adverse emotional event) reported experiencing higher levels of pain induced by this replaying in their minds of this unhappy event than those in GROUP 1 experienced as a result of recalling their physically painful event.
One reason for the level of pain we may feel as a result of rejection is that we have a marked tendency to blame ourselves for the rejection (we may infer we must be in some way lacking) even though such self-blame is very often objectively unwarranted.
Also, emotional pain caused by rejection can keep coming back to haunt us, again and again, and again…we may even obsessively think about our rejection and the person who rejected us. When it comes to physical pain, however, once it is over the memory of it does not result in us re-experiencing it.
Evolutionary Explanation Of Why Rejection Can Be So Painful:
We have evolved to find rejection painful as our distant ancestors lived in groups which increased their likelihood of survival. Rejection by the group would have endangered their survival so they evolved to find social rejection painful as it discouraged them from behaving in ways that could result in such rejection (just as, for example, we have evolved to find coming into direct contact with fire painful to help to prevent burning and damaging our skin).
And rejection by parents, for our ancestors, could easily prove fatal.
Dodge KA, Lansford JE, Burks VS, Bates JE, Pettit GS, Fontaine R, Price JM. Peer rejection and social information-processing factors in the development of aggressive behaviour problems in children.Child Dev. 2003 Mar-Apr;74(2):374-93. PMID: 12705561
Rohner, R. P. (1980). Worldwide Tests of Parental Acceptance-Rejection Theory: An Overview. Behavior Science Research, 15(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/106939718001500102
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.