A Guide to help Youth with Rejection
Mrs. Tiwari cried softly; her daughter’s dairy lay open in her lap. She hadn’t intended to read it, but the dairy seemed to beckon her as it lay unlocked on Preeti’s desk. She recalled how different Preeti seemed recently, and she hoped the dairy would offer some clues to her daughter’s changes.
She wasn’t ready for what she read; it took her breath away and made her sick. Preeti’s diary described things – sexual things – that were hard for a mother to read.
Preeti’s mom knew that the family’s move last year from Allahabad to Mumbai had been hard for Preeti; the transition had left her deprived of friends and in a new school, perhaps too vulnerable to withstand the pressures of her peers. But Mrs. Tiwari had not suspected the lengths her daughter would go to in her search for acceptance and approval.
She tried hard to sound normal when her daughter arrived home from school that afternoon.
“How was your day?” she asked.
Preeti mumbled a response as she scoured the kitchen for a snack.
“We have something to talk about.”
“I have to call Rani.”
“I’m sorry, Preeti, but this can’t wait. I. . . I read your dairy today.”
You what? Preeti stared at her mother; her eyes filled with rage. Her face reddened as she ranted for several minutes about her mother’s shocking behavior.
Preeti finally quieted, and Mrs Tiwari ‘s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t look at her daughter as she spoke. “Did you . . . did you really think those kids wouldn’t be your friends if you didn’t do what they were doing?”
“You think I’m such a kid. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know. You don’t know.” Preeti began to cry, too, but between sobs she related a story of rejection and cruelty, of classmates’ hateful stares and heartless jokes, of being shoved into passage and doors, of passing students “spilling” food and drink on her as they passed her, seated alone in the school cafeteria.
“I couldn’t take it, Mom,” she cried. “I just wanted them to think I was cool.”
Problem of Peer Rejection and Persecution
For as long as parents have been raising children the problems of destructive influences outside the home have been met with both protestation and anger by loving parents. Most parents want, to protect their children as long as they need it, but many feel helpless to provide what kids need in order to withstand the relentless onslaught of temptation and pressure.
Despite parent’s best efforts, many teens are rejected and persecuted. This peer rejection and persecution may occur for variety of reasons: for religious beliefs, personal appearance, non-compliances to the group. drug use, academic competence (or incompetence), athletic limitations, compliance to authority, conformity to adult guidelines, language use, physical handicap, and virtually any conceivable behavior, word, thoughts, or deeds that identifies one as somehow different from the social norm. Some have rightly termed this the “tyranny of the norm.”
Even difference in dress between schools can lead to contempt and scorn. This is particularly problematic for teens displaced in the middle of the school year when wardrobes have already selected with sensitivity to the social norms from the previous school. What is stylist and acceptable in one school can be seen as juvenile and banal in another school – even one within the same city.
The pressure to conform varies from physical attacks on one’s person, from isolating and ostracizing the out-of-step teen to requiring perfect mirroring of the desired peer group. Due to the volatility of teen emotions, these attacks may continue for long periods of time or simply cease for no apparent reason.
Some of the least-enjoyed teens are both the bullies and the bullied. Bullies are often disliked for their cowardly attacks on their smaller or weaker victims. The bullied are often viewed with contempt because of their inability to fend for themselves. They are frequently characterized by an apparent weakness that keeps them from moving away from the role of victim.
Parents have long advised teens to stand up to adverse peer pressure, much like the anti-drug campaign “Just Say No”. Unfortunately, as the folks fighting the war on drug discovered, just saying no is a too-simple approach to a complex problem, one that is rooted in self-image and self-esteem, and complicated by the normal development of adolescence. The impact upon teens can be severe and long-lasting. Teens long remember the embarrassment and pain of peer rejection, abandonment, and grave injuries resulting from trying to fit in.
The common occurrence of teen banding together in groups based upon language, music, and dress testifies to the fact that belongingness need dominate the life of teens. Their fragile egos are ravaged by social failures and imprinted by grievous memories of rejection. Many times, the reasons for rejection and forced compliance have little to do with appearance . . . some of which are beyond the control of the teen.
Seeing the need for teens to have positive self-esteem and resilience during their teen years, many parents attempt to “peer-pressure proof” their children. By building in their disciplinary actions specific training to withstand outside influences, these well-meaning parents endeavor to equip their teens for the battle for their minds, wills, and emotions. While the research investigating in this area is not abundant, the results are disheartening. The data do not support the notion that we can guarantee our teens will manage peer pressure well in spite of our preventative measures. To the contrary, researchers have discovered that:
….by the time they reach high school, no matter how intact they are at 11, some girls will have lost chucks of their vitality and self-esteem, their resilience and their focus, as they realize that, in order to have relationships, they have to give up some central truths about themselves.
Even our relatively intact children are at risk. The pressure to fit in is enormous, and it can exact a heavy toll even on the healthiest teens. At times inexplicable behavior by heretofore well-mannered teens can only be explained and understood by the need to belong and fit into one’s peer group. The price of admission is often more than one can pay. Research has shown that social acceptance is critical factor in predicting emotional problems later on.
Peer rejection can wound young kids in such a significant manner that it contributes to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and chronic tendencies towards depression.
Causes of Peer Rejection and Persecution
Many factors contribute to the problem of peer rejection and peer persecution. In order to fully understand the causes, one must examine the teens who are vulnerable to this problem separately from the teens who participate in the problem.
The Vulnerable Teen
Teens who tend to be more vulnerable to this problem range from apparently healthy teens to those who have been identified as high risk for many years by parents, youth leaders and teachers. The vulnerable teens who are seen as fairly healthy and intact are usually found, upon closer inspection, to have hidden emotional deficits. These are difficult to identify with a superficial evaluation except when they are under stress. At those times their deficits are more easily noticed. Vulnerable teens frequently have several factors in common that render them susceptible to the influences of others.
Teens most vulnerable to pressures and rejection tend to be found in two different categories. They either socially isolated and alone or are relating to groups of peers who are also vulnerable to pressure. These teens are seen by others as ineffective and unattractive, and frequently are the targets of negative attention. In relating to others, they find it hard to sustain long-term relationships, are poor at conflict resolution, and seem less likely to appropriately risk social contact due to their history of social failure, Teens with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to these feelings of failure.
Positive self-esteem is one of the best insulators against negative peer pressure.
Teens who have self-confidence, a healthy identity, and accurate estimate of themselves are typically more discerning regarding social conformity. They generally are more capable of independent thinking than those who feel confused about themselves and their place in the world.
Teens who show deficits in the following areas exposing ego weaknesses are more prone to engage in group behaviors without careful evaluation
- Teens who are impulsive,
- Teens who show difficulty delaying gratification,
- Teens who demonstrate poor frustration tolerance,
- Teens who have little ability to adapt and cope with changing circumstances,
- Teens with poor ability to tolerate both negative and positive affects,
- Teens with limited ability to think in terms of cause and effect,
- Teens with limited ability to establish true peer relationships, and
- Teens who have some distortion in their sense of reality.
The Participating Teen
Some of the teens who participate in peer rejection and persecution (as opposed to the victims) are identified early in life as they tend to draw school discipline upon themselves. Early identified teens are typically overt in their intimidation and influence on others; other teens are cleverer and exert influence in secret ways, thus limiting their exposure to authority figures. The following factors are common elements of both overtly and covertly controlling teens.
Families of teens who are controlling, both overtly and covertly, are usually characterized by leadership that is authoritarian, controlling and intimidating. The intimidation is expressed in both physical threats and abandonment threats to force the family members to obey and conform. Teens who use similar tactics seems to have identified with the aggressive parent and now seek to victimize others as they were once victimized. Thus, the cycle of control is passed on to the next generation.
The teens who are more overt are teens who found a way to maneuver themselves in their family to their advantage without suffering punishments. These families can also be characterized by limited boundaries and chaotic family structure. This can prevent children from exercising self-control and internalizing the value of others, which inhibits their concern for others. In a chaotic home, young people learn that first they must fend for themselves; therefore, they develop a more self-absorbed perspective on the needs of others.
Teens who exercise control and influence over others are typically charming, self-absorbed, and have social skills that enable them to convince and persuade others to accept their point of view. They seem to have an uncanny capacity to size up others and find ways to win them over. Many times, these teens are considered popular and desirable by the majority of other teens.
Teens who dominate by physical intimidation are generally limited in their social skills, not well-like by others, and generally have difficulty with authority figures.
These teens have underlying poor self-image. However, it often takes a careful analysis to discover this. They are frequently well guarded and deny that they have deficits in this area. Often their use of other teens is a means to boost their weak self-image rather than endure the pain and suffering required to resolve the nagging issue of self-doubt.
Superficially these teens look confident and happy. However, their self-appraisal is exaggerated, a defense that protects them from the truth. They are also characterized by constantly changing friends as they feel a need to attract new friends to provide newer emotional supplies when old friends become ordinary. Participating teens who are more physically intimidating have low self-images and are immature, shallow in relationships, and generally fearful of risking true peer relationships. They use intimidation to ward off awareness of the weaknesses they sense in themselves.
These teens have the same general ego weakness mentioned above.
Effects of Peer Rejection and Persecution
The youth leader or mentor will note that the following effects of peer rejection and persecution are complex and will require careful assistance to accurately assess how to help. Some of the symptoms will no doubt be a consequence of issues that are only tangentially related to the problem of peer persecution and rejection.
Teens who are struggling with peer rejection and persecution will report feeling lonely, hopeless, and helpless.
They may say such things as, “I wish I was dead.” In their hopelessness they may take a self-destructive turn and justify their obvious life-risking actions with, “What difference does it make what happens to me? No one will miss me anyway.”
Since teens are behavior oriented, they will often express their depression with actions rather than words. They may appear angry and agitated rather than express themselves in wors indicating their inner turmoil. The following expressions of depression need to be particularly attended to:
- extreme moods of crankiness, anger, irritableness, or sadness
- irrational display of emotions
- high level of intensity that are not congruent to environmental precipitators
- self-loathing (hatred toward self) comments
- increasing gloomy ideation and preoccupation
- negative moods that last for weeks.
Peer pressure, in its most extreme cases, has led teens to commit to suicide pacts. Though this is a rare occurrence, when it does occur it is usually driven by a leader who exerts power and influence over the others. The group members frequently have in common the above-discussed personal problem areas. An additional consideration one must keep in mind is the close friends of teens who attempt or complete a suicide. These teens are more at risk to attempt suicide than teens who are less close friends. (See Suicide – Bijoyful)
Teens who have suffered from the persecution of peers often abandon efforts to get needs for affection, belonging, love, and acceptance met by their age peers. In dealing with this kind of loss, teens sometimes turn to what they consider safer “objects,” such as intense romantic attachments that are characterized by a fused relationship (in fused relationship, each participant believes they are compelled by the feelings – especially ‘negative ones’ and vulnerabilities of the other) that often blurs the distinctions between the couple, or by turning to less risky companions: animals.
The isolation they feel can be profound, as it leaves teen deprived of the necessary transitional objects (peers) to aid them in leaving their home and moving toward adulthood. In addition, it leaves them with scars of feeling inadequate, unlovable, and unwanted. These feelings can lead to poor choices for mates and future friendships.
While gang members often refuse to admit the needs that make gang affiliation desirable, many if not most of the teens who join gangs do so for personal security, belonging, and a sense of family. They have failed to find ways to meet these needs in the normal, more healthy process of relating to their peers. They have thus given up developing real autonomy and adulthood for the short-term sense of power and belonging. They feel they have new power over their situation and a clear understanding of who is good and who is bad.
This help simplify a complex world for a confused and angry teen. However, the commonly associated criminal behavior, resistance by gang members to let a member leave the gang, and general denial of needs ill prepares the gang members for productive adult lives.
Many teens choose drugs use as a way to cope with painful emotions that results from negative peer pressure, persecution and rejection.
They numb personal pain with chemical rather than risk vulnerability in a relationship or a realistic awareness of their problems. Sometimes they experience a concomitant group affiliation that accompanies their drug use.
The use of personal names for beverages and drugs attests to the common effort to personalize the chemical as it masks interpersonal needs. Young people need a loving friend who would warn them when they are unruly, encourage them when they are fainthearted, help them when they are weak, and be patient with them always. Instead, they choose a counterfeit that more quickly and easily takes the pain away although not without a terrible price.
Drugs, have a seductive quality that enhances the teen’s sense that he or she does not need others, thus protecting the youth from the fear that he might become dependent if he acknowledges the need of others. This sense of omnipotence is almost hypnotic and renders teens nearly powerless to resist. Specialized treatment is frequently required to rescue a teen from drug use.
Research has shown that peer influences are different with different kinds of drugs. The more socially used drugs like alcohol and weeds (marijuana) seem to have greater peer influence with their use.
This influence is frequently misunderstood; however, Peers seldom push drugs with verbal bombardment but rather with a subtle influence, indicating what is acceptable and popular.
Positive influences with peers who are exposed to drugs have also been documented.
Researchers have found that peers who associate with non-drug-using peers have a much less likelihood of using drugs themselves.
In last few years information emerged out of a high school in South Mumbai where a group of male teenagers competed with each other to see who could “hook up” (form relationship) with most girls. This represents some of the worst effects of peer pressure. As the details of this activity became clear, it was evident that the competition provided acute self-esteem needs and encouraged group members to prey upon needy, less confident females. In other cases,
sexual contact is the price for relationship among teens.
It seems a costly price to pay, but it is an example of the power of teens over each other when the playing field is uneven; that is when a predator-like teens prey upon those weaker than themselves; when sexual pleasures substitute for real love, belonging, and acceptance.
Stress hits many children the day they march off to kindergarten minus Mon and Dad. As Kids grow, so do their levels of stress. They start worrying about grades, test scores, sport, and socializing.
Stress is the normal result of any circumstance that threatens (or is perceived to threaten) our wellbeing. Since peers are an important part of stress reduction and “stress sharing,” it is important that the peer group be healthy and supportive and not self-absorbed, robbing the group members of the benefits of grouping up together.
Young people who are vulnerable to peer pressure and rejection often find that the only groups they fit into exact a tremendous toll as they make use of the teen for their own purposes. Instead of mutual support, opportunity for practicing adult coping, and encouragement, teens can be used as scapegoats and all manners of blaming and projecting.
Rejection creates a high level of stress for teens who suffer the ambivalence of wanting to be accepted but finding the price is often giving up their integrity.
Response to the Problem of Peer Rejection and Persecution
Parents and youth workers who spend time with teens will not escape seeing the ravages of peer pressure and the cruelty of peer persecution and rejection. These teens will be injured and hurt in profound ways. Remember how important it is not to minimize their pain, but give them a chance, in a loving relationship, to express themselves without reproach on either the teen or his/her friends. The following steps should prove to be helpful:
Listen carefully to the young person. Try to help the teen identify the pain without asking too many questions. Remember these will be shameful and embarrassing issues for him or her to express. Be certain to withhold judgement of the persecuting or rejecting teens until you have made a connection with the teen you are helping. Rather than point out the cruelty of the peers, ask the teen how it felt to be left out, persecuted, or rejected. Expect him or her to be very reluctant to admit the social exclusion and embarrassment.
Young people need to know that you care about their pain. They are often convinced that no one really knows how they feel. However, they will appreciate your efforts if they can begin to see that you understand- even if you have little or no common experience. Be careful about jumping into your own history to try and relate too quickly. Teens are somewhat self-focused and aren’t sure that adults really can relate to them. They are more touched by your acknowledgement that you have some sense about what they are going through but will need their help to fully understand. Sometimes a statement about what you think they are going through will help them connect with you. A statement like “I can see how important it was for you to fit in,” can help them see you are understanding.
Be careful to affirm the teen’s value and worth. They don’t respond to casual statements, but they nonetheless need to experience your esteem. This will happen as they find you are not embarrassed or ashamed of their story. They will experience your affirmation by seeing your willingness to protect their worth as you offer them unconditional relationship. They will also feel affirmed if they perceive that you respect their opinions on the options opened to them.
Remember, teens are cautious about becoming vulnerable in exposing their needs. They feel they cannot remain dependent upon adults and fear any appearance of this. While they are correct that they must gain independence, they also will need to realize how inter-dependent we all are.
This part of the interaction will be one of the most delicate parts. Assuming you have been able to forge a relatively good relationship with the teen, now you must:
- Offer your resources but do so in a way that is not experienced as parental and condescending.
- Guide the teens towards open expression of their fears of not belonging, anger at the peers who hurt them, feelings of inadequacy, and the dilemma they face in returning to people and places when the risk of injuring is high.
- Be slow to offer ways of handling their peers, but guide them to a realization of helpful techniques and strategies, which may include
Avoiding potential trouble spots. (Ask, “What can you do the next time trouble starts to develop?”)
Devising effective responses to defuse situations. (Ask, “How have you responded in the past? Can you think of any other/better ways to respond, things to say, ways to act?”)
Actively countering destructive feelings. (Ask, “Are there any relationships or pursuits you can think of that might help (e.g. developing new friendship, new interests, school activities in an area of proficiency, etc.?”)
Investing yourself. (Ask, “Is there any way you can think of to get your mind off your problems by serving others or helping someone else?”)
Seeking positive support. (Ask, “Who are the people who make you feel good about yourself? How can you be around them more? What are the situations that give you confidence? Can you think of ways to get more of that positive support?”)
(See Peer Pressure – Bijoyful)
- Finally encourage the teen to turn to God in prayer and listen to Him; a thriving relationship with God is an invaluable, irreplaceable resource in times of troubles.
Help build the teen’s self-esteem by enlisting him or her in the problem-solving effort. Help the youth discover the causes that left him vulnerable to the problem but lead him also to find healthy ways to meet needs for love, acceptance, belonging, and understanding. He will probably not be able to simply avoid the problem teens but will need to find peers who will value him and be safe for him. Help him take inventory of the possible people who can be a resource. Teens will not be able to just resist destructive influences without healthy alternative to replace the old ways.
Teens who are involved with drugs and gangs nearly always require referral (with parental permission) to a counselling professional. Depressed teens who think about or threaten suicide also require immediate attention. Some of the other issues may require professional assistance, but many communities have effective youth groups that can be a great assistance. Teens who have been hurt by peer rejection and persecution will need a safe, loving, peer group to connect with. Youth groups are excellent places to provide safety for the social needs of teens. Research has validated that children who are involved in activities and get along with others (usually as a result of being involved in activities) are less likely to have the above-mentioned problems, whether the problems are the result of peer pressure, persecution, rejection or other factors.
Family involvement in the caring process is almost always required. Referrals for parenting classes are very helpful in assisting parents to create an environment most conducive to their teen’s growth and development.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery, livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.