Being rejected by a dismissive or a distant parent can have negative effects which lasts a lifetime, if without therapy. Recent studies have shown that the emotional pain caused by rejection activates the same area of the brain that physical pain does. Work against these negative effects by engaging in positive means to manage this pain and by identifying ways to deal with the toxic parent.
Parental rejection is the lack of or the considerable withdrawal of warmth, affection or love from parents towards their children. Parental acceptance is related to greater psychological adjustment, while parental rejection is linked to psychological disorders. Healthy parent–child relationships are characterized by affectionate communication, with a balance between rules flexibility and rules abiding. By contrast, the lack of affectionate communication, regimental parental attitude, and disregard of opinion of children and disrespectful disagreement may bring about damaging effects in the personal and socio-emotional development of youths.
Characteristics of the dismissive or distant parent
Parents of rejected children tend to be dismissive and distant. Hurtful and distancing behaviours increased the sense of power parents have over their children. As every child looks for validation from their parents, they try harder to please their parents, often feeling helpless as a result. This sort of power-shift can every so often crop up in a child-parent relationship, particularly after the child becomes an adult.
If you have a dismissive or distant parent, you may have experienced some or all of these:
You become a scapegoat for their pain.
By moving away from their child and by being in denial their own pain, their detachment is neither healthy nor constructive. As their child, you tend to absorb this pain to shield your parent(s) or you simply might not know any better. As a result, your sense of self-worth and lovability is impacted .
They discount your views and beliefs.
A parent who is inept of respecting the views and beliefs of their child does not respect and love their child sincerely and wholly. If the right to personal autonomy is dismissed, the relationship is deemed to be a failure creating imbalance and distrust. Emotional availability ought to be present between parents and children .
They push you away.
An overly critical parent concentrates on negativity and diminishes their child’s confidence. Discounting their child’s accomplishments by reminding them of their sacrifices or suggesting their child to do even better. . In order not to show vulnerability to the child, parents pull away to maintain their own illusions of grandeur or superiority.
They criticize your innate abilities.
Parents have a tendency to feel threatened or invalidated when aptitudes and traits of their child are distinct from theirs. Hence, the dismissive parent fails to establish connection with their child and push them away. Condemning the child’s capabilities or characteristics invalidates their most basic psychological core leading the child to believe that they are insignificant and unworthy of love and appreciation.
Side-effects of growing up dismissed or invalidated.
Struggling to resolve the relationship that is shared with parents inflicts pain which manifests in a number of issues.
Fear of attachment and love.
Adult children of dismissive parents have an intrinsic fear of attachment and love due to unfamiliarity with it. They pick up protective mechanisms that maintain distance from others. These mechanisms generate a space that feels safe, despite the fact that it leads to misery and an hostility that nurtures hopelessness and loneliness.
As an adult, avoidant style of attachment is common amongst children of dismissive parents. The adult child may not crave close connections (dismissive-avoidant) or need close connections but is afraid of the emotional cost (fearful-avoidant).
Others react by becoming needy and determined on receiving their parents’ attention any way they can like indulging in self-destructive behaviors. Alternatively, they may possibly grow to be high-achievers to get attention, nevertheless feeling empty. Their adult attachment style is that of anxious-preoccupied.
Lack of identity and direction.
A strong base of morals and identity can guard the downsides of toxic relationships. Family environments that foster insecurity and mistrust creates a lack of identity and direction. Consequently, the child have a tendency to follow the crowd and tend to be taken advantage by others. Every now and then, breaking tradition and freeing from the crowds that we have always known helps.
Selfishness leads to an inability to be emotionally attached and can lead to juvenile behaviours that isolate from the people that matter most. Some examples of juvenile behaviours include blaming, lying, name-calling and bullying, etc.
Conflict-filled adult relationships.
Love and concern from our parents can lead to fulfilment and security in our adulthood. Being abused or just neglected by our caretakers can lead to development of unpleasant and self-defeating characteristics. The adult children of distant or dismissive parents struggle with long-term relationships with emotional problems that revolve around anger, grief and a sense of hopelessness.
Borderline and narcissistic personality traits.
Those who grow up with strictly distant or emotionally abusive parents can often find themselves suffering from narcissistic personality disorder (NPC) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). To the individual suffering from BPD, unstable moods can lead to frequent fights, blaming and paranoia while the NPC sufferer struggles with grandiose feelings of arrogance and empty self-confidence. Without proper therapy, both conditions can destroy relationships.
Effects of rejection on the brain
Neurological studies state that parental rejection triggers the same part of the brain activated by physical pain and there is a shared neural alarm system known as anterior cingulate cortex that responds to both physical and social pain. More evidence presents that emotional pain is similar to physical pain from the findings of the medication Tylenol, which is taken to reduce physical pain, which also alleviates emotional pain.
It is human nature to blame oneself for the rejection. Also, emotional pain caused by rejection can continue to haunt and cause one to obsessively harbour about the rejection and the person. For physical pain, on the other hand, once it is over, the memory of it does not result in re-experience.
Signs you are suffering from childhood rejection as an adult
Negative Automatic thoughts
Automatic thoughts provide information about beliefs about ourselves that begin from childhood. If you have negative assumptions about how others think of you or you assume their intentions negatively, you are probably affected by parental rejection as a child.
Avoidance of close relationships protects you from further rejection. You may be functioning under the subconscious belief to avoid getting close to others.
You may have learned to rely on yourself more than others due to distrust and insecurity therefore focusing less on what others think. Thus, skills such as compromising become difficult.
If as a child you coped by making your parents or people around you notice you in a positive way, you may develop people-pleasing tendencies as an adult.
Self-esteem and self-doubt
Poor self-esteem and self-doubt are some of the negative consequences of rejection. Security in relationships turns out to be a challenge and worries of abandonment by a partner hover in the mind of the adult child.
Incapable of giving love and nurture
The toxic parent was incapable of providing love that is supportive for their child. Either way, a child who lives through a lack of love and affection might have trouble knowing how to give it as an adult.
How to deal with a dismissive or distant parent.
The primary step in dealing with a toxic parent is to accept that only you can heal yourself. Emotionally absent parents are not fully present and will never be. There are effective ways to deal with them with a little understanding and a lot of acceptance.
1. Be the parent you always deserved.
We often look for healing in all the wrong places such as other people, drugs, alcohol etc. Do all the things a caring parent would do. This means treating yourself well, checking in how you are feeling and how you are coping.
Find activities that bring you peace and joy. Be kind and gentle to yourself and the way you see the world. Work hard to build up that confidence and celebrate your strengths and victories every single day. Start journaling to get in touch with the wounded child within. Learn to love yourself.
2. Dig deep. Examine. Forgive.
Healing and joy comes from revisiting the traumatic times. Scrutinize the past and the feelings that surface and then try to forgive. Forgiveness merely means you have given yourself the green light to move on and to let go of the pain. It does not excuse the damage done. Moving on by accepting the pain inflicted is moving from a victim mindset to an empowered mindset so that you and your future will no longer be defined by the experience.
3. Let yourself feel.
When feelings are not dealt with, they can be destructive. The best way to deal with deep-seated emotions is to journal. Write down your feelings and memories without editing. Writing helps to gives a clear picture of the past events and aid us to realise how you are shaped by the rejection. Do this regularly to help you come in touch with your emotions.
4. Stop blaming yourself.
Emotionally distant parents are broken children, just like us. Stop holding yourself responsible for the hurt inflicted each time guilt or frustration surfaces. Instead of ignoring the negative thoughts, let them come and replace them with positive self-talk. Rather than thinking, “It is my fault my parent treats me this way. Attempt to replace it with a more positive thought like: “I am trying my best for myself. I am not responsible for their behaviour, feelings or perspectives.”
5. Create new connections.
Create a connected network of caring friends and partners that are there for you. Put effort in sustaining the friendships you already have.
6. Realize that your emotions are not reality.
Your feelings are not a reflection of reality. Imagine if someone else is going through the same situation? What would you say to them if their parents did not love them? Would you reply with support or would you reply that they are worthless and unlovable? As children of dismissive parents deserve compassion and love, give yourself the same support.
7. Set boundaries.
Commence by setting boundaries and adhering to those boundaries even when things get difficult or uneasy. Let your parents be aware about the behaviours you will not tolerate from now on. Have an honest and open conversation. Be frank about what you need and how your parent’s actions make you feel.
8. Recognize the patterns of manipulation.
Learn to recognize the patterns of emotional manipulation and put a stop to them before dismissive parents have an opportunity to wound us further. Even if guilt or accusations are made, let them know that you will no longer endure it. Reclaim your power back by breaking from these patterns.
9. Start with small steps.
The emotional costs of an emotionally absent parent take a long time to undo. Tiny steps are needed to heal yourself. Distance yourself from the parent who makes you feel unimportant.
Gracia, E., Musitu, G. (2003). Social isolation from communities and child maltreatment: a cross-
cultural comparison. Child Abuse Neglect, 27, 153-168.
Dwairy, M. (2010). Parental acceptance-rejection: A fourth cross-cultural research on parenting and
psychological adjustment of children. J. Child Fam. Stud. 19, 30–35. doi: 10.1007/s10826-009-9338-y.
Tabak I., Zawadzka D. (2017). The importance of positive parenting in predicting adolescent mental
health. J. Fam. Stud. 23, 1–18. doi: 10.1080/13229400.2016.1240098.
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Chriselda holds a Master’s degree in Counselling from Monash University. She is currently a member of Singapore Association of Counselling. Her clientele includes individuals, couples and families from diverse age, racial, religious, socioeconomic groups including LGBTQ+. She incorporates elements of cognitive behavioural, mindfulness, person-centred, psychodynamic, solution focused and narrative therapies and motivational interviewing techniques.
Chriselda is passionate about helping individuals and empowering them towards a purpose, meaning and wholeness. She hopes to bring about positive changes in those who lack direction in life and are hurting from their past wounds.
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