How Rejection In Childhood May Affect You Later In Life

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some rejection is a normal part of human life, but the timing and magnitude of this experience can have varying impacts on a person’s psyche as well as their future. Rejection from peers and/or parents during childhood or adolescence in particular has the potential to have a significant impact on an individual’s well-being, even into adulthood. Let’s examine the way the brain experiences rejection, how peer and parental rejection in particular can affect a person, and advice for healing.

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Rejection and the brain

Studies suggest that the emotional pain we experience when feeling rejected activates the same part of the brain that’s associated with physical pain. One study even indicates that participants who took Tylenol felt slightly less emotional pain from rejection than those who took a sugar pill. This complex neural link gives us a glimpse into just how affecting this type of experience can be. Researchers believe that this connection may be an evolutionary one, since social rejection could drastically decrease the chance of survival in the days of our early human ancestors. 

Experiencing rejection as an adult can be difficult, as anyone who has ever been turned down for a date, passed over for a new job, or not invited to a party can attest. However, adults are more likely to be able to rationalize and recover from the experience. In this way, children and adolescents tend to be much more psychologically vulnerable to rejection, which is why it may have such lasting effects. 

Two types of childhood rejection and their potential impact

Children and adolescents are exposed to two major social settings growing up, and significant rejection in either or both could affect their behavior and mental health well into the future. These two settings are interactions with parents and interactions with peers.

Parental rejection 

According to attachment theory, which was first developed in the late 1950s, parental rejection in childhood can significantly affect child development because of the insecure attachment style it can cause. Per this theory, an individual’s attachment style develops as a result of the quality of the bond or level of acceptance between them and their primary caregiver. In this context, acceptance refers to a parent or caregiver’s predictable, responsive, and sensitive reactions to their child’s needs, which build a strong attachment. Rejection—which can take the form of unpredictability, unavailability, a lack of responsiveness, or harshness in response to a child’s needs—can lead to an insecure attachment style, which can be harmful to development and can represent a form of child abuse in some cases.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Acceptance or rejection in the context of attachment theory can affect children over the short and long term. More immediately, the child may experience or engage in a variety of troubling emotions and behaviors, such as sadness, loneliness, social withdrawal, attention-seeking behaviors, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and angry outbursts. 

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Research also suggests that an insecure attachment style can make an individual more vulnerable to stress, which appears to be a risk factor for developing certain types of mental illness in childhood, adolescence, and/or adulthood, such as depression and anxiety. 

The experience of caregiver rejection in childhood may affect an individual’s romantic relationships in adulthood as well. Growing up with a loving, reliable, supportive caregiver generally helps create an overall trusting view of others, while childhood rejection tends to have the opposite effect. That’s why individuals with insecure attachment styles tend to be more likely to perceive their partners as untrustworthy, insensitive, threatening, or hostile in adulthood, which can lead to increased conflict and decreased intimacy.

Parental rejection in childhood may even affect the individual’s future academic and career success. According to recent research, perceived parental rejection may be associated with lower motivation in school as well as emotional instability and maladjustment, which can impede current academic and future job success. It also reports that parental acceptance in infancy appears to be related to academic and career achievement in adulthood.

Peer rejection 

Rejection by peers is another form of this psychologically difficult experience that children may undergo, especially during adolescence. It’s a normal part of development for teenagers to want to start spending more time with their peers and exert more autonomy. But if they’re significantly or consistently rejected by others their own age in the form of being excluded, not having friends to hang out with, or being subject to harsh negative reactions or bullying behaviors, the experience could affect them deeply. 

It’s also worth noting that “Both the nature of this challenge and how it is handled are linked closely to the ways adolescents are treated by the adults in their lives,” according to one study. This means that insufficient support from caregivers could also contribute to or exacerbate the experience of peer rejection.

Peer rejection or acceptance can affect performance in school, just as the parental type can. For instance, consider a 2023 study on elementary school students aged nine to 12 that indicates “a direct positive effect of peer acceptance on academic achievement.” A possible explanation for this effect is that students who feel accepted by their peers may be more engaged and comfortable and less stressed in the classroom, facilitating better focus and motivation. There’s minimal research so far about how peer rejection in adolescence may affect an individual’s success in the workplace later in life, but it stands to reason that lower academic achievement could lead to more trouble finding work, lower job competence, and/or lower earning potential in the future.

Healing from childhood rejection

According to a 2020 study, recovering from childhood rejection often means changing your attachment style—which researchers suggest may be possible through “a variety of cognitive processes” like the restructuring of fundamental beliefs over time. To put it another way: You can’t change or control the behavior of others or how they treat you, but you can change how you react and what you believe about attachments and relationships. 

This shift—referred to by the study as “volitional change” of one’s attachment style—usually takes time and concerted effort and may be helped along by a therapist. It tends to involve repeatedly engaging in behaviors that induce feelings of attachment security and reduce anxiety and avoidance as well as challenging anxious or avoidant behaviors over time. Researchers in the study cited above report that “people who wanted to become less anxious tended to experience declines in attachment anxiety across time” through this method. 

Getting additional support in therapy

The emotional wounds of childhood often run deep and it may be difficult to face them alone. That’s why many people turn to a qualified therapist for support on this type of journey. They can offer you a safe space to explore your emotions and memories along with techniques and strategies that may help you adjust your thought patterns over time so you can heal. 

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Speaking about difficult childhood experiences can be challenging, and some people feel nervous engaging in such conversations with a care provider face to face. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a more comfortable and convenient option, since it allows you to meet with a licensed therapist via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home. Since research suggests that both online and in-person therapy may offer similar levels of effectiveness, you can typically choose whichever format works best for you.

Takeaway

Caregiver or peer rejection in childhood or adolescence may have the potential to affect an individual at the moment and well into the future. However, healing is possible, usually through shifting of thoughts and behaviors over time, which a trained therapist can help with.

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