Helping your child deal with parental rejection

Rejected stamp

Parental rejection in childhood can have devastating effects lasting long into adulthood

Probably one of the most heart-breaking issues that I sometimes have to deal with in therapy is a parent’s rejection of their child.

In the majority of cases I’ve dealt with, the parents are separated or divorced and the non-custodial parent acts as if they want nothing to do with the child. In one very severe case the family was still intact and all lived together, but one parent made it clear to both the child and their spouse that they did not want the child and expected the other parent to deal with them.

It is difficult to overstate the profoundly negative impact that parental rejection has had on these children.  They present as very unsure of themselves and have incredibly low self-esteems (despite some pretty impressive achievements – one little girl competed in soccer at national level!)  They also present as being down, emotionally fragile, often teary and – in one case – severely depressed.

Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut is an expert on the effects of parental rejection and 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 as strong and consistent an 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 care-givers and other attachment figures”.  

The pain of this rejection is likely to last into adulthood if left untreated and these children often have difficulties forming trusting relationships as adults.  

As the remaining parent it can be endlessly frustrating and painful to watch your child go through this rejection.  Here are some ways in which you can help your child cope with parental rejection:

  • Maintain low levels of hostility toward the other parent.  Often easier said than done, but keep in mind that conflict between parents is usually one of underlying causes of this rejection.
  • Have a calm, but very frank discussion with the other parent.  Ask him or her to meet you somewhere your child won’t be able to overhear your conversation and emphasise the significantly negative impact this perceived rejection has on your child both now and possibly also in the future.
  • Your child needs to have a relationship with the other parent – if the other parent is positive and sincere about patching up their relationship with the child do whatever you can to facilitate this!  Yes, you may initially feel angry at having to go out of your way to suit the other parent – but keep in mind that this is about your child and not about the other parent or your relationship with them.
  • Inconsistency simply isn’t good enough!  If the other parent is not sincere about fixing the relationship or often lets your child down you might eventually decide to take another route.  By constantly not showing up for visits or not phoning regularly your child will continually be swept through the cycle of rejection and disappointment.  You might eventually need to talk to someone to find out what your legal rights are on prohibiting contact wit the other parent.  It is an extremely difficult decision to make, but remember to let yourself be guided by the  principle of what is in the best interest of your child.
  • Don’t force the issue – the only thing worse for a child than being rejected is having to spend time with a parent who doesn’t really want to be with them.
  • It helps to talk – assure your child that he can talk to you whenever he is feeling sad about not seeing the other parent and help him to find an appropriate outlet for all that emotion.
  • Keep building their self-esteem.  Remind your child that they are special and unique and that there are many other people in their lives, such as grandparents or siblings, who love them very much.
  • Stop creating an expectation in your child.  Don’t say things like: “Your daddy should have been here to see your concert”, etc.  Just focus on enjoying the moment with him.
  • Find positive, loving role models of the same sex, such as grandfathers, uncles or older cousins for your child to bond with.
  • Get some help – if your child seems depressed or severely affected by the rejection, take your child to see a psychologist to help him deal with these intense emotions.

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