The question scribbled on the inside of a neatly folded piece of paper asked “What about when someone you REALLY like doesn’t like you back? When does it stop sucking?”
Ugh. Did that question just land in the pit of your stomach like it did for me?
Whether we survived romantic rejection in Grade 6, Grade 10, or more recently as an adult on an online dating app, it’s pretty easy to re-connect with the sharp edges of romantic rejection.
In all honesty, when I consider the thousands of candid, intelligent, intriguing and bold (looking at you Grade 9s!) questions I am asked every year, it’s the questions about rejection that challenge me most. Navigating romantic rejection is never easy but it can be especially difficult for youth in the midst of their new and exhilarating romantic feelings.
As their trusted adults, here are a few useful reminders to help all of us navigate those oh-so-sharp edges of romantic rejection.
As with all big life topics, start early and basic!
The earlier we begin having conversations through everyday life moments, the stronger our ‘tweens’ and teens’ relationship skills and confidence will be. This starts in elementary school when we teach our kiddos about how to make and be in friendships. As we help them to understand that no matter how amazing they are, not everyone will return their interest and energy. Just as they also won’t return that of others, either.
Although it feels personal, this rejection is not a reflection of their value as a person; it’s about the other person’s boundaries and our responsibility is to do our own work to respect and ultimately accept those boundaries. If we hold this understanding about boundaries, we can work to accept rejection without making it more personal than it needs to be.
Don’t assume kids will experience romantic attraction.
As youth travel further down the road through middle school and beyond, they deserve to have the adults in their lives make space for the possibility they’ll experience romantic curiosities and connections without teasing or minimizing. Try not to make assumptions that they will experience romantic attraction—many people do not! Young people often tell me that they don’t really share their relationship issues with the adults around them because they don’t want to deal with ridicule or “cringey” moments.
Create and offer comfortable spaces for youth to talk about their potential romantic feelings and queries. Ask them open ended general questions, leaving space for them to fill in the details if they choose to. Youth often tell me that the least cringey relationship talks with adults happen when everyone can focus on a task at hand like washing the dishes or cleaning out the garage.
Be empathetic and supportive without offering advice.
When youth share a romantic rejection experience with you, meet them first with empathy and offers of support without giving advice unless they ask for it. Empathy will validate those sharp feelings of shock, confusion, disappointment, anger, sadness, grief, embarrassment, regret, etc. Some adults mistakenly assume that youth in their newly found feelings don’t experience true emotional depth. Yet, research tells us that the romantic feelings youth experience do carry significant depth and have lasting impact. These feelings are incredibly powerful to them and acknowledging them as such will support them and build trust between you.
Some of you may have been told after experiencing rejection that there are “plenty of fish in the sea!” and while we may believe this to be true, shifting the focus from what they’re currently feeling minimizes and dismisses a really difficult time in their life. Try to stay with them in their feelings and remind them it’s natural and okay to feel all the things they’re feeling. While we’re all waiting for time to do what the cliché says it will, ask your youth how you can support them through? They may shrug their shoulders and tell you they don’t know or that that’s not a big deal but that act of asking lets them know you’re here with them and happy to follow their lead. Be sure to keep connecting with them in the event they need some extra support through the journey back from the heartache.
And finally, remind them that while you know it’s super hard for them right now, you’re also really impressed, inspired and proud that they were confident enough to take the risk to express their feelings, ask someone out and/or be in a relationship. This helps to remind them that while rejection does suck, they’ve still gained a lot from the experience and when it stops sucking, they’ll be left with something good!