When Teens and Tweens Are Excluded or Rejected

• Meghan, 16, a pretty, blond cheerleader, was devastated when her best friend suddenly stopped speaking to her. She became depressed and spent months in therapy trying to figure out why this girl had dropped her without so much as an explanation. There had been no words at all—not even a fight; her former friend simply began to ice her out.

• Tom, 17, a sensitive young man who wrote poignant short stories, was part of a group of guys, describing themselves as “not-jocks,” who hung out together on weekends. When two of his friends became closer to each other, Tom felt squeezed out, like he no longer belonged.

• Grace, 12, dated an “older” (8th grade) boy for 6 weeks. When they broke up, she became inconsolable, secluded herself in her room, and refused to interact with her family. Although it only made her more miserable, she spent her time compulsively stalking him on social media.

• Brenda, 15, was eager to put the cattiness and exclusivity of middle school behind her. In high school, she enjoyed being part of a new friendship group. Then one friend started dating her ex-boyfriend. Although Brenda assured the girl she was “totally fine” with her being with her ex, the group stopped including her in their plans. Once again, she felt bereft without a social life.

These boys and girls, all of whom I saw in therapy, could not have been more different. Two were intensely ambitious, highly achieving students, while the other two had little interest in academics. A couple were extremely involved in school activities, presidents of various groups and team captains, while the others showed up just for classes. Their personalities and vulnerabilities varied widely. What they shared, however, was pain brought about by rejection. These teens and tweens all felt a profound sense of loss when they were excluded from their social groups.

As parents, watching kids go through these experiences can be just as heart-wrenching. You may be puzzled about why your son has become a victim of the very group that has been his safe haven. You may wonder why your daughter is so crushed by breaking up with someone she’s been dating for only a short time. When you think about their other friends and classmates, it may be hard to understand why this one rejection is such a big deal. If you see them desperate to forge other alliances, you may be dismayed by how far they’re willing to go to be accepted—or the new peers they find appealing. Above all, you’re probably frustrated and helpless because there’s so little you can do to relieve their hurt.

New neurobiological research, which confirms what psychologists have been saying for years about people’s responses to social exclusion, can explain your teens’ puzzling behavior. Although you probably still won’t be able to take away their pain, these insights can help you to empathize with their strong emotional reactions and frantic attempts to form new attachments.

An Innate Need to Belong

Psychologists have long thought that belonging to a social group is as basic to our existence as eating and breathing. When this need is unmet, we can become psychologically or physically ill. In fact, the brain scans of people who feel rejected show increased activity in an area of the brain that is experienced as physical rather than emotional pain. What’s even more remarkable is that we react just as powerfully to strangers slighting us by merely looking away as to when we’re blatantly ostracized by our closest friends and family members. Regardless of its source, rejection causes intense pain.

Scientists believe that our deep-seated need to belong to social groups stems from an evolutionary need to survive. As with other pain, the agony of rejection serves an important function. By signaling that something is wrong, that there’s a threat to our well-being, we’re prompted to take corrective action. Much like how the sharply searing sensation of touching a hot stove causes us to quickly remove our hands, the pain of exclusion makes us look for ways to be included again. In doing so, we’re just as likely to ingratiate ourselves with the group that just rejected us as to try to fit into another group.

Rejection + Adolescent Development

If the need to belong is powerful for adults, it is that much more profound for teens. After all, they crave peer involvement and acceptance, which are critical to their developing a sense of identity and self-worth. It’s through associations with friends and inclusion in groups that teens figure out who they are—and who they’re not. The feedback they get from peers shapes their self-esteem. Girls in middle school or high school tell me that how they feel about themselves varies literally from minute to minute, according to which classmates say hi to them, pass them right by, or give them what could be “weird looks.”

Through this lens, inclusion in groups is just as crucial for survival in the halls of middle schools and high schools today as for our ancestors who needed to share food and fight common enemies. Even one close friend makes all the difference to teens. With an ally, they’re much more likely to tolerate the discomfort of being in class, try out for an athletic team, or attend a school event. Research has found that tween girls who had a friend with them during a stressful experience produced lower levels of a stress hormone and reported higher self-esteem than those who had been alone.

Lessons from Research

This powerful biological response to feeling rejected or excluded can explain what you might otherwise see as inexplicable or exaggerated responses to your teens’ all-too-common social slights and disappointments. Rather than dismissing their reactions, you can better understand their sense of rejection—and perhaps feel better prepared to help them move on. Here are, in my opinion, the most important lessons we can learn from science:

1. Consider all emotional responses valid. Rather than acting as if teens and tweens are being dramatic, remember that we’re all wired to feel tremendous pain when strangers so much as turn their heads away. Imagine how heartbroken and humiliated kids feel when their most trusted friends or romantic interests publicly abandon them. This also explains why they are devastated by even milder or subtler forms of ostracism, such as silence, sighs, or rolled eyes, which are more prevalent among girls.

Grace, who dated her boyfriend for only six weeks, lost far more than her status as a girlfriend when they broke up. Because tensions with her best friend had been making her feel insecure, she gratefully gravitated to the lunch table where her boyfriend and his friends sat. His rejection ousted her from the friendship group that had restored her sense of belonging.

2. Anticipate (more) self-absorption. Although adolescence is practically synonymous with self-absorption, excluded teens raise this quality to a whole other level. That’s because monitoring pain, whether physical or emotional, forces us to focus inwardly. Also, teens become preoccupied with trying to figure out why they were rejected, especially when there was no argument or other obvious trigger. At least with conflict, teens are still engaged with peers. But being ostracized sparks endless obsessing about what happened and why, which only adds to their isolation.

This is what happened to Meghan. For months, she couldn’t stop thinking about what she could have possibly done to cause her friend’s betrayal. Why wouldn’t the girl even speak to her? Without a hint of what her friend was thinking or feeling, Meghan felt compelled to mentally play out various possible scenarios, stopping and replaying them like an old video. Feeling utterly discarded and insignificant, for a time she became mildly depressed.

3. Expect self-esteem to take a dive. Social rejection, especially at this juncture of development, is a blow to teens’ self-worth. It doesn’t matter if they’re fortunate to be accomplished or good-looking or genuinely wonderful human beings. More than likely, in their search for answers they’ll second-guess everything they’ve said and done. Then they’ll blame their exclusion on their inadequacy, stupidity, ugliness, nerdiness, or other perceived flaws.

Tom’s temperament, love of writing, and maturity made it easier for him to handle his rejection. When I asked what he was going to do after his friend dropped him, he just shrugged and said, “Sit at a different lunch table.” Writing helped Tom to be resilient. Not only was he used to spending time by himself to work on his stories, but also he channeled and expressed his feelings about this experience through his writing. Years ago, he had come to terms with not being in the predominant “jock” group of his high school, so he no longer based his self-worth on popularity. Besides, Tom told me, he would soon be leaving for college and “probably wouldn’t see these people again.”

4. Keep desperate actions in perspective. Remember that after rejection, we’re biologically wired to seek out inclusion again—either within the same groups or different ones. Some parents are beside themselves when their kids seem to be gluttons for punishment—that is, when they keep reaching out to peers who rebuff and hurt them, over and again. Other parents are alarmed when teens to turn to less desirable peers. But research explains why this happens. In studies, psychologists found that adults who had been previously ostracized agree with the majority of other participants, even though the majority was clearly wrong. The desire to fit in trumps our own better judgment.

As Meghan’s therapist, I became concerned by how she was coping in the aftermath of being ditched. She began attending parties where she drank heavily and got sexually involved with boys she barely knew in order to raise her social status and gain entry into the most popular group. Male attention and feeling desirable eased her depression, at least momentarily. But much like the adults in the study above, Meghan was sacrificing her values for social inclusion. Fortunately, this was short-lived; as soon as she felt more secure, she made decisions that served her better. According to her parents’ periodic emails, at college Meghan made good friends, found a “nice boyfriend,” and became a teacher.

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Teens’ powerful responses to perceived slights and rejection should make all of us who raise, work with, and support them more mindful of our own behavior. We must be cautious about using sarcasm or making overtly cutting remarks, especially when we’re annoyed or frustrated. It’s crucial to make clear our unconditional love and caring along with our corrections and constructive criticism. Most of all, it’s important to avoid using any form of ostracism as punishments—for example, ignoring teens, giving them the silent treatment, or shutting them out. I believe that one of our goals as parents, imbuing them with an absolute belief in our unwavering acceptance, can help sustain them throughout any social disappointments or rejections they may experience.

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