Early CHildhood Rejection
The drive to belong is arguably our species’ most powerful need. As I have pointed out elsewhere, most believe that the determination to survival is primary but suicide refutes this and invariably suicide is a result of rejection. It is in early childhood that we learn to attach, belong to others especially with early caregivers (parents) and rejection at this time has devastating impact on the development of their sense of self. Understanding the impact early childhood rejection will help you, not only have compassion for these victims of rejection but assist you make those professional relationships that are critical in your classroom.
Parents can reject their child by:
- Withholding Affection – If a parent does not show affection or emotional support the message to the child is they are not worthy.
- Being Overly Critical – When parents consistently criticise their kids for their behaviour, efforts or appearance are again showing they are not considered worthy.
- Neglect - Emotional or physical neglect is a more passive way of rejection (see Newsletter 230 - Neglect 22 March 2023).
- Comparisons to Others – When parents compare their child to others, particularly siblings it is invariably that they are not as good as the other (however, if they overly praise their child that will have a different negative impact on the child).
- Abandonment - In extreme cases, parents may abandon their children both physically and emotionally and this can have profound impact on their development.
It is obvious that significant rejection whatever the form will lead to a sense of toxic shame as described in the last Newsletter.
MRI studies on rejection, even in the least threatening conditions show that when one is rejected the same areas of the brain are activated as they do when we experience pain – rejection really hurts. In broad terms the changes are as follows:
- The amygdala, that area processing fear and anxiety is activated leading to feelings of distress and anxiety
- When a child is rejected their body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which increases heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension. Continued elevated stress leads to permanent brain damage.
- There is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive and the effectiveness of decision making is reduced.
- The link to physical pain is illustrated in studies that show that rejection can make a child more sensitive to physical pain.
- Rejection can also lead to changes in the levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which can not only affect mood and behaviour but also the ability to learn, make memories!
Overall, the physical and neurological changes that occur when someone experiences rejection can be significant and can have a profound impact on their emotional and mental well-being.
One field of study that is underpinned by rejection is that of attachment. In general attachment is the emotional bond that exists between people. It must be remembered, like all behaviours these are learned in childhood and how they are acquired will influence how effective they will be in later life. Infants have a need to form an attachment in their first six months by being supported emotionally and socially, if not they are rejected. The study of attachment throws up various descriptions of the styles and, in simplified terms those dysfunctional types can be summarised as:
- Insecure – these children have a raised fear of future abandonment. They find it difficult to trust others and struggle in isolation.
- Avoidance – these children avoid making attachments in the future. They will appear indifferent and unresponsive to other’s advances.
- Ambivalent – These children are a mix of the previous two. They vacillate between seeking comfort with others to pushing others away.
As I said at the outset, the drive to belong is powerful and these children, despite the injury inflicted on their ability to make functional attachments will still attempt to belong in their immediate community. In the first instance, they will seek attachment, be that with other adults, teacher or older peers. These may or may not satisfy their immediate need but they will try. Their functional deficiency in attaching will make these kids vulnerable to exploitation.
Some kids, particularly those who have above average abilities may become very self-reliant and successful at school or in other activities. This may be an attempt to let their parents see they are worthy of their attention.
The rejection makes them hypervigilant, always looking to avoid being rejected again. This makes them suspicious of others and brings in their lack of trust in others. If they are in a situation that reminds them of times when they were rejected they will retreat behind protective walls of behaviour that are designed to keep others out. This can be things like aggression or being extra ‘nice’, anything to avoid opening up to any real meaningful attachment.
As Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania University points out children who have been rejected in early childhood have:
- Low rates of prosocial skills, they find sharing or taking turns very difficult
- High rates of aggressive and disruptive behaviours
- Difficulty in attending to tasks and are impulsive
- High rates of social anxiety
What to do when working with a student who has disrupted attachment? It will be of no surprise that our philosophy gives a broad outline of how to help these students:
- Structure – make sure your classroom is very predictable. Students with rejection issues often have difficulty with transitions or changes in routine. It is important for the teacher to establish a consistent and predictable routine to help the child feel safe and secure.
- Expectations – always reinforce the behaviour you expect from them. Of course that is easy when they are doing the ‘right thing’ but when they are disruptive the rejection of that behaviour must not include the rejection of the child! This is critical because their hypersensitivity to rejection makes it hard for them to make that distinction. Remember we accept the child 100% while we reject inappropriate behaviour 100%.
- Relationships – you can build professional relationships by understanding these kids really suffer a disability that is not of their making. The way you are consistent, always welcoming them into your class despite what might have gone on in the last lesson and are persistently there for all studenst will allow them to start to trust you and that is the foundation to all good teaching practice!