It's the last thing any parent wants to hear her child say. "Mom, I didn't make the basketball team." Or "Dad, NYU rejected me." Even the incredulous "She invited everyone but me!" is enough to make your stomach churn. "Rejection is like breathing—an unavoidable, important part of life," says Harlan Cohen, founder of the International Risk-Taking Project. "Our job as parents is to help teens manage it and use it as a springboard to success." Studies show that adolescents who don't learn how to positively channel their disappointment may struggle with bigger issues down the road, including low self-esteem, anxiety, aggression and depression. Your kids will invariably face rejection, but you can help them through it.
The Letdown: Social
As teens start to distance themselves from their parents, they look to their friends for cues on how to dress and act, who to hang out with and who to ditch. This means your kids may be picked on for reasons ranging from weight to hairstyle or even the car you drive to drop them off at school. From a teen's standpoint, it can be blindsiding (your daughter's best friend from childhood defects to a new clique—and suddenly doesn't want anything to do with her) and often beyond his control (your son is teased because he has braces, acne or a speech impediment).
Why It's a Big Deal: Teens are vulnerable and tend to measure their self-worth by the reactions of their classmates. Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., director of Clinical Psychology at UNC Chapel Hill and editor of the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, says that kids who experience peer rejection are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol, and engage in risky sexual behavior. This is caused by a combination of factors, including stress and loneliness, the development of a hostile way of viewing the world, and the fact that rejected teens tend to seek out one another and together are more likely to do something dangerous.
How to Help: Don't downplay the importance of popularity at this age—your teen won't buy it—and don't intervene directly by contacting a bully or his parents. (Doing so infantilizes the child, warns Prinstein.) Instead, help your kid understand what is happening and why it's not her fault. If, for example, a group of girls make snide remarks any time your daughter passes their table in the school cafeteria, explain to her that they're insecure and are poking fun at others in order to feel better about themselves; your daughter should pity them for being so closed-minded. "When kids are able to understand that this doesn't have to do with their own shortcomings, they tend to handle it better," says Prinstein. Social psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman, Ph.D., meanwhile, encourages them to "go out and be social." The idea is that the more your teen stays connected, the more likely she is to meet people who will accept her for who she is. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, animal shelter or other organization is a great start: Your teen will feel better about herself after helping others, and volunteer activities are less likely to attract judgmental or mean-spirited people.
The Letdown: Romantic
Love hurts at any age, especially when it's unrequited. Whether your son was snubbed when he asked his crush to the dance or your daughter was just dumped via text message by her boyfriend, romantic rejection ranks among the most painful—not to mention public—letdowns, thanks to gossip mills like Facebook and Twitter.
Why It's a Big Deal: A devastating amorous disappointment can scar a teen for years to come. When his ego takes a beating, his confidence dwindles. He blames himself, compares himself to others and may be less inclined to take future risks.
How to Help: Resist the urge to put down the object of your teen's affection—thrilled though you may be that Mr. Black Fingernail Polish is finally out of her life—and avoid repeating phrases like "It's his loss," even if you truly believe it is. Rather, focus on the qualities that make your teen a catch, like her sharp sense of humor. Try introducing what Cohen calls the "universal rejection truth," the basic idea that some people will like us and some people won't and that's okay—we just need to focus our energies on the people who appreciate us. Maybe the track star gave your son a withering look when he asked her to the prom. Instead of letting him dwell on it, encourage him to ask any of the three girls from his math class who are always giving him moon eyes. Lastly, remind your kid to use this as a learning experience. At some point he will be the one doing the dumping, and hopefully he'll remember and be kinder to others than that cheerleader was to him.
The Letdown: Extracurricular
Assigned a bit part in the school play or crushed in the student-body election: Your teen put her mind to something and fell short. No one likes to lose, so it's your job as a parent to make sure she doesn't get discouraged.
Why It's a Big Deal: Trying out or auditioning involves a calculated risk, so teens who end up not making it tend to beat themselves up ("I'm such a loser!") or lash out at others ("The tryouts were fixed!"). Proactivity and confidence can fall by the wayside, says women's career and leadership coach Kris Parfitt, when people would rather feel sorry for themselves than figure out what they need to do to improve.
How to Help: Avoid bad-mouthing the school or teachers, advises Parfitt; instead, let your teen do the talking. Ask her what she thinks she could have done better or differently. If she's interested in trying again, encourage her to ask the coach or teacher how she can improve. Seeking out interim activities (an intramural sports league, a community theater group) will help her practice. You can also capitalize on your teen's ambition by exploring all aspects of her interest. For example, encourage a Broadway aspirant who can't carry a tune to consider directing or costume design instead.
The Letdown: Academic
Scoring poorly on a standardized test or being ousted from the honors program may be rattling, but even more devastating is receiving a skinny envelope when you were expecting a fat one. Colleges decline loads of qualified applicants, but try telling that to the kid who has slept in a Boston University sweatshirt since seventh grade.
Why It's a Big Deal: Students spend months crafting their college applications and often put one school on a pedestal; less desirable schools are slapped with the "safety" label. Not being accepted can come as a major blow, especially if your teen has already told everyone his first choice.
How to Help: Remind him that happiness is a state of mind, not a dorm room in Boston: Countless adults have built impressive careers at their second—and even third-choice—colleges. If you think your kid is overreaching from the get-go (say, a B student applying to Harvard), try to manage his expectations without discouraging him. Saying something like "Most students accepted into Harvard have a 4.0 GPA, which means you need to work extra hard on your college essay; I can assist with editing it" will keep him grounded but motivated. After helping your kid recognize it's a long shot, encourage him to give it his best effort. "I don't think there's such a thing as an unrealistic objective," says John Fuhrman, author of Reject Me—I Love It! 21 Secrets for Turning Rejection into Direction (Markowski Intl). "We're not here to guarantee them success. We want them to think that the goal is so important, they're willing to risk overcoming the fear of rejection and go for it anyway."
9 Dos & Don'ts of Teen Rejection
- Do acknowledge that your kid took a risk. That alone is worth celebrating.
- Don't trivialize your child's feelings. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but right now it's the world to him.
- Do offer perspective. Sharing a personal story of a time when you overcame a hurtful snub proves that life does go on.
- Don't be petty. You can't teach your kid to be the bigger and better person when you resort to name-calling yourself.
- Do encourage your teen to vent. Airing her frustration "off the record" with you—instead of publicly on Facebook or Twitter—will help her save face in the long run.
- Don't avoid the issue. Even if your son says he doesn't want to talk about it, try again later. He'll come around.
- Do try to lift her spirits. Taking a walk together, watching a goofy movie or grabbing lunch at her favorite restaurant will help clear her mind.
- Don't play the blame game. It's hard for kids to take responsibility for their own shortcomings when they're busy pointing the finger at others.
- Do seek outside help. If your teen clams up around you, encourage her to talk to a sibling, grandparent, teacher or other adult mentor.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.