If you’ve experienced persistent rejection in childhood, you may now fear emotional intimacy, have low self-esteem, or deal with anxiety symptoms. These effects can shape your adult relationships.
Children don’t often have the perspective and maturity to understand that rejection may have nothing to do with them and everything to do with the adult.
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.
The effects of rejection in childhood may manifest in the short and long run and can affect your personality development. They can lead to both physical and emotional pain.
If they’re not addressed, these effects might impact your mental health. But it’s possible to manage them and heal from an unloving childhood.
“Children are extremely self-centered — 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.
Immediately, both physical and emotional rejection hurt emotionally. Samton explains this can lead to:
- emotional pain
- rejection or negative emotion sensitivity
- mental exhaustion
- feeling lonely
- becoming withdrawn
- declining academic performance
- acting out
In some children, rejection can also lead to attention-seeking behaviors.
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:
- guarded interactions
- rejection of physical affection from others
- angry outbursts
Emotional rejection, like being persistently humiliated and criticized, 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 behaviors
- emotional avoidance
- low self-esteem
- symptoms of childhood anxiety
- difficulty regulating emotions
- attention-seeking behaviors (adequate or otherwise)
- learned helplessness
- avoidant coping behaviors (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 behaviors 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.
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 counselor in Earleton, Florida. “They can maintain a sense of unworthiness, which can hinder them in relationships, school, work, and even leisure.”
Attachment style theory refers to these effects as an insecure attachment, which can be either avoidant or anxious.
Avoidant attachment style may manifest in adults as:
- fear of commitment
- fear of intimacy
- strong sense of independence
- emotional unavailability
- tendency to emotionally abandon others
- dismissal of other people’s emotions
- difficulty trusting others
- the belief that being alone is better than having a stable partner or family
An anxious attachment style may manifest as:
- difficulty being alone
- “needy” behaviors
- fear of being abandoned
- need for constant physical and emotional reassurance
- feeling criticized by others when it’s not the case
Jahn explains rejection in childhood may also manifest in adulthood as:
- poor interpretation of social cues
- social inhibition
- poor communication skills
- tendency to experience interpersonal conflict
- reverting to a child mindset during moments of stress
- rejection sensitivity
Physical challenges of childhood rejection
Adults who experience physical rejection as children may have a difficult time expressing themselves physically. They may seem uncomfortable with physical touch or act angry or annoyed when someone is physically expressive with them.
Other challenges may involve:
- reluctance to hug, kiss, or hold hands
- aversion to public displays of affection
- annoyance or anger toward any unrequested physical touch
- sexual dysfunction
- avoidance of situations involving physical connection
Childhood rejection and loneliness
The effects of rejection in childhood are multifaceted, but they often lead to one significant outcome: a sense of loneliness.
A cross-cultural comparative
According to the authors, those maladaptive challenges ultimately culminated in a persistent experience of loneliness during adulthood.
Jahn says it is possible to heal from rejection in childhood. Here are a few ways you could start working on overcoming the effects of your early experiences:
“Show your inner child the acceptance and love they crave by becoming the caregiver you needed,” encourages Jahn.
Self-reparenting involves using positive self-talk to provide nurturing to yourself as an adult. The first step is to identify what you feel you missed as a child. What are those emotional and physical needs your guardians didn’t fulfill that you may need to fulfill yourself now?
If you didn’t get praise, reassurance, and tender care as a child, for example, you can try telling yourself:
- how brave you are for trying something out
- you’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough
- you’re loved
Sharing something about yourself with someone you trust can help you learn to recognize the feeling of acceptance.
“This might start out as small things like just telling someone you were thinking of them, and might progress to inviting someone to spend more time together,” says Jahn.
Identifying rejection habits
Learning to identify your negative inner dialogue that may resemble rejection you experienced as a child can help your brain re-label it as untrue, says Jahn.
She recommends using a journal to help raise your awareness of this negative self-talk. Anytime you notice rejection-oriented thoughts, you can write them down and ask yourself where they may be coming from. Try to come up with a counterargument for each negative thought.
Cultivating loving relationships
Building relationships with people you find admirable, caring, trustworthy, and empathetic may help you overcome some of the effects of rejection in childhood.
“Seeking out loving relationships can be reparative by replacing the love and affection [you] did not receive as a youngster,” says Samton.
Whether intentional or not, the effects of rejection in childhood may include fear of intimacy, distrust, anxiety and depression, and people-pleasing behaviors.
Feelings of confusion and emotional pain from rejection may lead to attachment challenges, ineffective coping mechanisms, or an overall sense of loneliness.
While you can heal from rejection in childhood by creating new, nurturing experiences, a mental health professional can be a valuable resource for working through the more challenging effects of rejection. Healing is possible, and support is available.