Teen Rejection Hurts More than the Heart
Think back to those tumultuous teenage years and I'm sure we can all identify a time when that boy or girl of our dreams broke our heart. We might also be able to remember times when we were rejected not by boyfriends or girlfriends, but by a group of bullies, the "in" crowd, or a prestigious sports team or social club.
While these events may seem insignificant to us now, at the time they felt like the end of the world. Rejection hurts like a knife in the heart or a kick in the gut. And now we know that teen rejection damages more than our delicate feelings.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and other partner institutions recently explored the effects of teen rejection on inflammation - a physiological process known to contribute to a host of problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. In the study, the researchers followed 147 adolescent women for 2 ½ years by meeting with them every 6 months for an interview and a blood test. The blood was drawn to measure inflammatory biomarkers known to be associated with the development of diseases.
The interview was conducted to identify whether the adolescents were exposed to a targeted rejection during the past 6 months. The concept of targeted rejection was spelled out quite clearly: (a) it must have happened primarily to the adolescent, (b) it involved the rejection of the adolescent by another person or group, (c) it involved a clear intent to actively reject the adolescent, (d) it directly affected the adolescent, and (e) it resulted in the severing of a relationship between the adolescent and the other person or group.
Interestingly, the researchers found that in general, when adolescents suffered a targeted rejection, their blood contained more inflammatory biomarkers. The elevated biomarker levels were even more pronounced among adolescents that had perceived themselves as being of high social status. In other words, targeted rejection seemed to hit teens even harder when they viewed themselves as popular.
This makes me all the more concerned about our consumer culture that teaches adolescents that they must meet social standards of attractiveness, popularity, and success in order to be happy. This, paired with the preponderance of bullying, sets the stage for teens to be repeated victims of targeted rejection and, according to this study, to be put at higher risk for serious health problems in adulthood.
If you are a parent or if you interact with teenagers, please check in with your teens frequently to assess whether they've been subjected to targeted rejection and to determine how they are handling these adolescent social challenges. Rather than try to shield them from rejection - which is an inevitable part of life - try to prepare them for it by focusing on self-confidence and self-worth not defined by ridiculous social standards. If teenagers are secure in their values and worth from within, they may be less susceptible to the damaging effects of targeted rejection, both now and later in life.
Murphy, M. L. M., Slavich, G. M., Rohleder, N., & Miller, G. E. (2013). Targeted rejection triggers differential pro- and anti-inflammatory gene expression in adolescents as a function of social status. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(1), 30-40.