“I can’t figure it out,” one of the writers to Psych Central’s “Ask the Therapist” column wrote recently. “My parents never give me any emotional support or even seem to like me. I always get good grades and do what they ask me to do. I’m the president of the service club at my high school and I’m on the varsity basketball team. But my younger sisters who are out of control can do no wrong. They are disrespectful, yell at each other and our parents, and have been picked up for shoplifting and for underage drinking. But I’m the one who is criticized, put down, and ignored. Sometimes they even hit me for no reason. Why don’t they love me?”

It’s a plaintive plea that comes through the email several times a month. Writers speak eloquently of the pain of being rejected by the very people who are supposed to love, cherish, and care for them. It goes well beyond “favoritism.” These teens and adults feel actively disliked by their parents. They report being beaten, yelled at, berated, and belittled. Sometimes they even report not being adequately fed and cared for while other children in the family do get at least the minimums and often far more than the need. In some families, it’s gender-specific, with the boy being the little prince while the girls are in servitude. Sometimes the girls are exempt while the boy in the family is treated harshly. In others it’s the oldest or youngest of the kids of the one who looks a little different that’s cruelly treated or ignored. What could possibly make adults treat a kid, especially an essentially good kid, with such contempt? How could parents single out one child for abuse while caring for others?

In rare instances, the parent is severely and persistently mentally ill and there’s no “sense” to the rejection at all. In his or her psychotic episode, the child is a changeling, or evil, or an alien from outer space — not their child at all. More common but no less scary and confusing to a child is the overwhelmed and depressed parent for whom the tasks of caring for a child are just too much of a burden to bear. Unable to cope, they push their child away.

When the caretaking is assumed by friends and relatives who explain that it’s not that their parent doesn’t love them, but that they are ill, the children have a way to at least understand that the rejection isn’t personal even though it’s very, very painful. Hopefully, with good treatment and support, the parent is eventually able to once again open heart and arms to their child. Children being children (even as adults), they are often able to forgive and accept love that is restored.

But often enough the reasons for rejection are hidden; sometimes from the child and sometimes even from the parent him- or herself. Parents who seem perfectly normal when out in the world (or at least no more or less dysfunctional than most people) create a situation at home where one child in the family feels like an outsider. What goes on?

Secrets and Lies

A family secret is a common basis for rejection. The rejected child may have been fathered by someone other than the mother’s husband. The child’s very existence is a daily reminder of an affair, a relationship gone wrong, or a rape. In such cases, the couple agreed to parent the child and to act as if the dad is the biological father. Despite their good intentions, they find they can’t put aside the past or forgive the child for being born. Rather than deal with their own feelings of regret, guilt, or anger, they take it out on the bewildered child.

Parents who believed they were forced into a marriage that neither wanted due to the pregnancy may also visit their unhappiness on their child. Many push back their anniversary date and live a lie. For reasons of religion, economics, or family pressure, they don’t see divorce as an option. They stay together but they blame the child for trapping them into a loveless marriage. In some cases, one or both of the parents feels such shame for the premarital sex or affair that produced the child, they can’t bring themselves to love him.

Charity gone wrong can also result in rejection. In one of my cases, a mother adopted her teenage daughter’s child as her own so that the daughter could go on with her life. The child was never told that her “sister” was in fact her mother. The grandmother kept the secret but grew to resent the child. She had to again manage the teen years as a mom while her daughter had the option to play wonderful big sister; she never had to lay down the rules or battle over chores. The irony in this case is that the child and “sister” developed a strong bond based on their mutual anger about “mom’s” rules. But the child grew up feeling that her “mother” never really loved her as a mother should. She was right.

Winners and Losers in Family Conflicts

On a more unconscious level, the rejected child may be a lightning rod for old family disputes. Father hates mother-in-law. Mother-in-law favors one of her grandkids. That kid then gets rejected by father – which often makes grandma compensate all the more by spoiling the child. The fight has nothing to do with the child but it is nonetheless played out in the relationship the child has with his father. Father can’t love him because it somehow lets his mother-in-law “win.” It’s the child who then loses.

Similarly, one parent may pit a child against the other in an attempt to have an ally. If a father feels dominated by his wife, he may form a bond with his son grounded in their mutual disrespect for women. He “wins” the son’s devotion, turning him into a “mini-me” who carries on his underground battle with his wife. Mother comes to resent the son as much as she resents her husband. Father can’t see past his own issues enough to recognize that the son longs for a relationship with his mother who by now can’t stand him.

And then there are the unfortunate kids who just happen to look like (or somehow be like) the uncle who abused Mom or the sister who tortured Dad. The parents may not even recognize that they are hostile to their child in reaction to old hurts of their own.

Rejection Reruns

Some parents really don’t know any better. Having never been supported, encouraged or hugged themselves, they are clueless about how to show love. Having been rejected, ignored or perhaps actively abused, they repeat the only style of parenting they know. They learned what they lived and live what they learned, repeating the very parenting behavior that gave them such pain.

Rejecting the Rejection

Whether intentional or not, the effect on a child who is rejected by one parent or both can be devastating. The result is often low self-esteem, chronic self-doubt, and depression. Often the impact lasts well into adulthood. As one of my clients said through her tears, “How can I expect anyone else to ever love me if even my own parents don’t?”

The answer lies in the fact that the adult mind can do what a child’s can’t. An adult mind can come to understand that the rejection had little to do with who they are and the child they once were could not do anything to change it. Good grades, obedient behavior, awards, accolades, fame and fortune don’t matter when a child is the focus of a parent’s illness, shame, or personal battles with self or others.

Sometimes resolution happens because the secrets come out or teens “rebel” by refusing to be pawns in an old fight, or kids find better “parents” in their coaches, teachers, youth leaders, clergy, or the parents of friends. Most of the time adults come to an understanding that parents can be very flawed people who played out their own issues and pain on their kids.

Not everyone gets the good parenting every child deserves. We don’t choose our parents. As children, we are so dependent we can’t leave them. But as we become adults, we can come to understand that the people we are born to aren’t the final judges of our personal worth. A healthy response is to reject the rejection and to find other ways to fulfill the important role of a loving and wise elder who is a supportive presence in one’s life. For some, that role is played by a loving God. For others, it’s an older friend or relative who thinks they’re terrific. For everyone, it can be their own adult self who finally loves, respects, and heals the rejected child within.