A young girl is experiencing rejection trauma resulting from childhood abuse and neglect.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Rejection Trauma

January 19, 2024

5 min.

Rejection trauma often stems from childhood neglect or abuse and can impact people into adulthood.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

Rejection is something most people have to cope with in life. But rejection as a child, especially by those meant to care for you, is another story. Parental rejection, general childhood rejection, social rejection by peers, and other forms of abandonment can cause rejection trauma—a form of complex trauma resulting from abuse and neglect that can cause a fear of rejection and criticism, similar to rejection sensitivity.

Childhood abuse and neglect are unfortunately common, affecting at least one in seven children across the United States in the last 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These adverse childhood experiences can leave people at risk for rejection trauma. A person might also experience poorer mental health and rejection sensitivity due to perceived rejection, longstanding emotional pain, or instances of romantic rejection that trigger abandonment fears. Keep reading to learn more about rejection trauma. 

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Signs of rejection trauma

Each person will exhibit rejection trauma in different ways. It could be more subtle and barely noticeable or have a tangible impact on who they are in their day-to-day life. Another factor determining the signs of rejection trauma is age, with children and adults presenting different behaviors. According to Na’Keora Bryant, MSC, a Charlie Health Group Facilitator, here are the signs of rejection trauma in children and adults:

In children

  • Low self-esteem
  • Overreacting
  • Overly curious
  • Clinging to an adult, likely a parent
  • Trouble being left alone

 In adults

  • Attention seeking 
  • Regular sexual activity with the goal of attention or filling a void
  • Acting out and getting into trouble
  • Manipulation and narcissism
  • Discomfort with alone time
  • Destructive relationship patterns
  • Believing one’s own feelings don’t matter

Therapy for young people with rejection trauma

The effectiveness of therapy depends on so many factors, including a person’s age. As Bryant explains, therapy might not stick for a toddler between the ages of one and four due to a lack of understanding of why they’re there and what they could gain from it. 

In these early years, Bryant says one option could be applied behavior analysis, a type of therapy typically for people with autism spectrum disorder. However, the technique faces a number of critiques, from its former use of punishments to its focus on quashing certain behaviors instead of nurturing healthy ones. 

Therapy can begin properly if a child is exhibiting signs of rejection trauma who is over the age of five, says Bryant. Therapy for five to 10-year-olds doesn’t have to be an intensive experience but can be highly beneficial. Therapists working with children who are experiencing rejection trauma can teach the child to explain what it is they want and how exactly they feel at a given time. 

Bryant cautions that a therapist who shows patience is critical here because the sessions require meeting the child where they are, giving them a voice, and helping them cope with and reduce feelings of rejection or neglect. She adds that preventative care — actions that lower rejection trauma’s long-term impact on children — is about “being present with that child, and actually, letting them have a voice, and not shutting them down.”

How adults can support children with rejection trauma

There is endless advice about how parents — and adults in general — should interact with children. The advice can often be contradictory, or it may treat every child the same rather than meeting them where they are. If a child is experiencing rejection trauma, they will likely need much different interactions than one who isn’t. 

As Bryant says, “If a child is constantly crying or constantly seeking attention, give them that attention. I’ve noticed a lot of times that if there are clingy children and the parents do notice that they tend to try to sneak around that child that does not work, that is completely ineffective.” She recommends being honest with the child (always a good idea, regardless of their mental state) and explaining exactly why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. For example, if you need to leave the room or hop on a work call, then say that. Tell them why you need to go for the moment and when you expect to be back. Then, honor that and be consistent in your words and actions. This is not the time for tough love or vagueness. Hold their feelings in high regard and respect them. 

Coping with rejection trauma in adulthood

In some cases, a person might not realize their behaviors are due to rejection trauma until adulthood. At this point, it’s important to identify that you’re dealing with rejection trauma and sort through what caused it—steps that are critical for a person’s well-being and their relationships.

“It could be difficult, especially if you’ve been conditioned to believe that your feelings don’t matter,” says Bryant. “So in order to break the cycle, one thing that I would say is, just be honest with yourself.” Anyone might be tempted to bury emotional distress and fear, but the right support — including therapy or other professional mental health support — can help with uncovering and coping with childhood abandonment trauma or parental rejection.

A young boy is seeking therapy for rejection trauma.

How Charlie Health can help

If rejection trauma or rejection sensitivity is taking a toll on your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including complex trauma, emotional pain, rejection sensitive dysphoria, and more. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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