I was fourteen years old as I stepped off the school bus. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I had just experienced deep rejection. Behind me, the voices of former friends mocked me, toying with my emotions. Their taunts roused my pride and I tried to remain stoic and indifferent. However, the pain of rejection was too difficult to mask. All too soon I found my body wracked with sobs as I walked home from the bus stop.
Fast forward to being young and newly married. With my husband’s graduation, we were anticipating a move across the country for his new job. For the very first time, we would be leaving all of our family and friends. We would be making a new life for ourselves twelve hundred miles away. With trepidation, I had to wonder if our fresh marriage would be able to endure the strain of this new beginning. After all, until we established a new community of friends, we would only have one another to lean on, stand with, and console.
Would I be enough for my out-going, people-loving, extroverted husband? Or would there be rejection? We would be grappling with grief as we transitioned, said good-bye and separated ourselves from the community we knew and loved. Fear gripped me and anxiety grew as we made all the necessary plans to transplant ourselves across the country.
Continuing to Grow
Several years later, as a mother to three beautiful daughters, I found myself encountering tears on the playground. Children’s tears. One of them had experienced rejection while playing. Pushed away by another child, the toy had been taken. The offending child ran off with another to play elsewhere. This single interaction caused me to stop, reflect, and consider how to approach rejection experienced by my child. Harkening me to pause, I considered how I have responded to rejection throughout my lifetime. I asked myself, “How do I want to approach and share through the intricacies of the pain at being the brunt end of dismissal, rejection, and scorn?” What did I hope my children would learn from me?
Rejection Happens and An Indifferent Attitude Can Arise
As I have reflected, it has occurred to me how often I have responded to rejection with a level of indifference. Stuffing down emotions from painful experiences, and vowing not to allow the guilty party to know the depth to which they had inflicted emotional pain had been my typical modus operandi. I considered the many times I had plastered a stoic smile upon my face. Methodically, I would then redirect my attention, and choose to ignore the altercation altogether. Upon deeper reflection, I considered how indifference and self-preservation had slowly taken root in my life. Was this the approach I wished to model and share with my children? Honestly, no.
By definition, self-preservation is the protection of oneself from harm or death. It is a basic instinct in human beings and animals. While self-preservation is truly an instinct, there was a presence of warning weighing on my heart. This warning was how self-preservation first became a response for me. I spent a lifetime stuffing down my emotional hurts and often ran from the pain. I acknowledged how I struggled with never readily addressing those very real moments and emotions head-on.
Was this what I wanted for my own children as their response to rejection? Did I wish for them to walk around with a heavy burden on their hearts due to the pain of rejection? No, certainly not. I needed to gain a healthier understanding of how to handle the impact of rejection. If not for myself, then for my own children.
Emotions and Vulnerability
As I considered experiences of rejection in my life, I recalled how I had often responded with great, overarching emotion. Whether it was a lashing out in anger, retaliation, and fury, or the crumbling into a fetal position of avoidance and denial; I quickly realized how indifference had become my mask of self-preservation.
Emotions are messy. They can often be met with even more heightened emotion. Many times these heights are neither favorable nor helpful. As an adult, a display of emotion can often go hand-in-hand with having our personality labeled. Labels such as hypersensitive, co-dependent, toxic, unstable, or a train wreck. Likewise, emotions invite vulnerability while indifference embraces control.
Emotion vs. Indifference and Self-Preservation
While self-control is crucial, I was beginning to realize the damage that can come from moving to the opposite end of the spectrum. Living in a sphere of consistent indifference is neither healthy or desirable. After all, we, as humans, are emotional creatures. We were created with the need for emotions to be expressed, addressed, and processed. Reflecting on how moving through life with a perspective of complete indifference may seem trivial. However, it can be damaging to our heart and soul. With its allure to control, a spirit of indifference strips away at freedom and puts us into emotional bondage.
Another string of questions began to form in my mind: “What would it look like to live as if I weren’t easily offendable? Is it feasible to think I can respond as unconcerned over any rejection that comes my way?”
After all, aren’t these ultimately the healthy habits I would like to witness my own children understanding? What if I could teach them the fine art of living as not being easily offendable yet simultaneously providing the coaching necessary for appropriately addressing emotion?
First Step: Understanding the Brain
One of the first steps I took to find answers to these questions was to take a deeper look at brain development. This knowledge helped me find a correlation in managing emotions that stem from specifically experiencing rejection. Through understanding some basic components of brain development, I have been able to find tools for understanding how to appropriately coach my children through experiencing rejection.
For instance, the amygdala is the almond-shaped mass of gray matter housed inside each individual’s cerebral hemisphere. It is directly correlated with the experiencing of emotions, survival instincts, and memory, and has been key to understanding children and their emotional responses. According to a wealth of research on brain development, it is a known fact that “children’s brains have a massive growth spurt when they’re very young. By the time they’re six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. But the brain still needs a lot of remodeling before it can function as an adult brain. This brain remodeling happens intensively during adolescence, continuing into a child’s mid-20’s.”
Understanding Brain Development and Rejection
Additionally, “adolescence is a time of significant growth and development…The main change is that unused connections in the thinking and processing part of a child’s brain (called the gray matter) are ‘pruned’ away. At the same time, other connections are strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, with the pruning process beginning in the back of the brain. The front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is remodeled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain. It is responsible for a child’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems, and control impulses. Changes in this part continue into early adulthood. Since the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do.”
What Does This Mean?
The good news is that the combination of our children’s unique brain and environment does influence the way our children act, think and feel. So, there is a correlation to brain development and the coaching of our children in healthfully handling rejection. Likewise, how our children and teenagers spend their time is crucial to brain development. As parents, it is worth our time and energy to consider the range of activities and experiences our adolescents are involved in. These activities can be in direct relation to how our children’s brains are being shaped. Additionally, these experiences are ultimately necessary for healthy brain development that will take our youth into adulthood.
As intentional parents, we can guide and influence our adolescents. We can do this by establishing family routines to give life some structure. We can provide boundaries and opportunities for negotiating those boundaries as well as correspondingly being a positive role model ourselves. Our own adult behaviors show our children the attitude and behavior expected in healthy, enjoyable living.
Second Step: Releasing Emotion
When faced with rejection, I have found it crucial to focus on the safe release of emotion. In my experience, releasing emotion helps to process through rejection. I have also found that it helps me move through the range of emotions being experienced. As a parent, I have found how important it is to remain connected with my child. As difficult as it might be, being open and approachable as they release emotion proves essential in building trust in relationships. I strive to be someone who actively listens, holds, and shoulders their safe release of emotions. I have found that having a punching bag or pillow in which to safely release angry energy can be helpful.
In addition, inviting our children to find new and creative or expressive outlets for their feelings can also be extremely helpful. New emotions will be experienced for the very first time as children grow. Exposing them to new avenues of expressing those emotions could prove to be very helpful. For instance, introducing them to new avenues of art, exercise, or writing may be just what they need for processing these new emotions. Considering involvement in sports or music can also be good outlets. Furthermore, enjoying the discovery of these new avenues, together, can truly be a bonding experience for mother and child.
Third Step: Intentional and Safe Conversations
Lastly, intentionally creating time to be present in the lives of our children is vital. I have found that while talking through how to manage rejection, if I remain open and approachable, it helps to establish an atmosphere of trust and security. Talking through the potential consequences of any action is also beneficial. Likewise, encouraging my daughters to weigh the positive consequences against negative ones is incredibly healing with regard to their relationships and individual brain development.
In the same way, offering frequent praise reinforces pathways in our children and adolescent’s brains. Praise also reinforces the building of a trusted relationship. As each of these steps are taken, the power of rejection and the emotion involved will be dispelled. The influence rejection once had will be dispersed as you discuss the situation (emotions are processed) and offer praise. Just like that, you and I can experience the healing steps of rejection being healthfully handled.
Similarily, indifference will be eradicated. The wound inflicted from the experience of rejection will move forward into the healing process. Furthermore, an understanding of how to handle rejection is in place for when it comes our way in the future. Rejection is inevitable. But recalling how to take these necessary steps will enable and guide us through rejection and ultimately toward healing. The way we handle rejection, grow from it, and respond to it makes all the difference in the world. I choose to model wholeness, following these steps in addressing rejection. In this endeavor, may I also coach my children well in responding to rejection. May they have the necessary tools for finding wholeness as well.