Scarleteen Confidential: Helping Youth Handle Rejection

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It's a painful reality that shootings and other acts of mass violence are horrifically common in the U.S, spreading grief to individuals, families, and communities. Each time the news breaks about a new incident, we find ourselves in the midst of a cycle of “why does this happen and how can we stop it” news stories, op eds, and social media debates. It’s exhausting, heart-wrenching, and frustrating all at once. And even though we’re seeing measures, many of them youth-led, to change the laws around gun access and school safety, the average adult may feel a bit helpless in the face of recurring violence.

One factor in these violent incidents that is only recently being widely acknowledged is the role misogyny and entitlement play in driving the young men who commit these acts. A recurring pattern is that they are turned down by a specific young woman, or believe that women are somehow denying them the love and sex⁠ they’re owed, and decide to exact violent revenge for these slights. While there are other elements, such as gun access, that play a role in these incidents, we cannot ignore the ways entitlement and rage act as motivators.

In the aftermath of the Santa Fe High shooting, this Twitter thread about young men learning to accept a “no” drew attention to the ways in which adults⁠ can change the messages young people are getting about gender⁠ , dating, and rejection. These tweets highlight the fact that young people don’t arrive at their conclusions about appropriate romantic⁠ behavior in a vacuum; they’re influenced by a myriad of messages, including input from the adults in their lives. Sometimes that input includes ideas that end up exacerbating issues around rejection and dating.

One of the ways we can work towards a world in which acts like this no longer happen, a world in which people, and women in particular, aren’t afraid their “no” will make them a target of violence, is to make a concerted effort to help the young people in our lives learn to deal with rejection in healthy ways. With that in mind, we’ve put together recommendations to assist adults in doing exactly that.

Ditching Gender Notions

A few days ago, I was doing an outreach session with a group of young men. One of our discussion questions was about rejection and how to handle it, which branched out to talking about how to be respectful of someone when asking for a date and the way that certain gender norms get in the way of explicit communication⁠ about desire⁠ . The young men talked about wanting to be sure they weren’t coming off as pushy or creepy, and wanting to be aware of the boundaries of the young women they were interested in.

Why do I bring this up?

Because one of the most insidious sources feeding the bad advice adults give young people is that there are certain toxic behaviors that are “just how boys are” or “just how girls are.” And that, to successfully get a date, one has to either put up with or push past those behaviors. The best example of this is the idea that women never say what they mean, so when they say, “no, I don’t want to date you” what they really mean is, “keep trying.” The reverse of this is that many young women grow up being told that all boys are pushy and that they should just learn to deal with it. What this results in is a dynamic where boys feel like they should keep asking a girl out after she says no, and girls feel like there’s little they can do to make those asks stop, and everyone ends up feeling cruddy.

The conversation I had with the young men at outreach demonstrates how reductive and inaccurate those beliefs about gender are, and how open young people are to figuring out how to respect boundaries and learning ways to accept rejection gracefully. The vast majority of young people want to be conscious of boundaries and avoid being jerks. Changing the discussions we have with them about consent⁠ and rejection doesn’t require pushing against some immutable gender characteristics; it requires some open, honest, and occasionally awkward conversations.

Respecting Boundaries

You can help the young people in your life learn how to respect boundaries by leading by example. That includes asking for permission to touch people and honoring their answers, not trying to argue your way around rules, and handling rejection as gracefully as possible. It helps to be extra-respectful of young people’s boundaries when you interact with them. In doing so, you’re offering them a model to follow for what a respectful reaction to a boundary looks like. You’re also reinforcing the idea that respecting a boundary is the default. That means they’ll know that pushing or arguing the boundary is not what they’re “supposed” to do, and that if someone is doing it to them it’s a sign that person may not be safe to be around. This approach also helps them understand that it’s okay to set boundaries, and that doing so doesn’t make them unreasonable or mean.

A time where respecting boundaries can be tricky for young people is when they find themselves crushing on someone. Crushes can make people act like lovesick puppies, complete with the disregard for boundaries usually found in small, highly-excitable dogs. It may be tempting, as an adult, to encourage some of those puppyish behaviors. Maybe you fondly remember your first few crushes, the bubbly, happy feeling of finding out your crush liked you back and the young love that came after that. And heck, it can be quite an “aww” moment to watch the young people in your lives find happiness and romance. So, you encourage the young person to do what they can to make their feelings known and win their crushee’s affection⁠ .

In your excitement, don’t lose sight of the fact that the line between “sweet crush” behavior and “oh my god please leave me alone” behavior is a thin one. If the young person in your life has been turned down by their crush, you can offer a sympathetic ear (or a hug) if they want one. But please don’t advise them to keep trying until their crush relents and agrees to date them. We don’t live in a romantic comedy universe; we live in a universe where people are likely to get increasingly freaked out if someone they turned down for a date or dumped keeps showing up at their lunch table with flowers or declarations of love.

While we’re on the subject of declarations of affection, if we want to create a world where rejection doesn’t result in deadly consequences, we need to stuff the idea of “just give them a chance” into the trash. That saying seems innocuous, maybe even kind, at first glance, but it reinforces deeply unhelpful notions about boundaries.

Firstly, it tells people who assert their boundaries and turn someone down that they’re being mean, unreasonable, and should ignore their own boundaries in order to let someone have romantic or sexual⁠ access to them.

It also sets up an expectation in the asker, especially if they are a young man, that they are owed a chance to date whoever catches their eye. That little seed of entitlement can easily grow into resentment and anger. If a guy grows up thinking women should just give him a chance and encounters the reality of women with boundaries and preferences that don’t include him, he could feel he’s being cheated of something he has a right to. And if he feels cheated, there’s unfortunately a chance that he’ll take his anger out on that woman and other bystanders.

Instead of the “just give them a chance” approach, you could encourage young people to use the “ask once” policy in their social circles. Put simply, the policy means that you get to ask a person out once and if they say “no” that’s the end of it unless they voluntarily come back later with an “actually…” at which point the clock resets and you can ask again. This approach is great because it has clear rules and expectations. It removes some of the stress from the interaction since everyone is taking the words exchanged at face value. No one has to worry about their boundaries being disrespected or someone saying something they don’t really mean.

Handling rejection

If a young person in your life is rejected by someone they’re interested in, there are two approaches that can be helpful.

The first is to acknowledge just how much rejection sucks and validate whatever they’re feeling. As with break-ups, they could be feeling sad, angry, disappointed, numb, or a host of other emotions. Ask them what they need right then, whether that’s space to listen to sad songs and cry or a sympathetic ear, and offer it if you can. Having a supportive person in their life can take some of the sting out of rejection.

Rejection also offers a chance to talk with the young person about how they can get through and bounce back when they don’t get what they want. Rejection doesn’t solely show up in the romantic parts of life; it crops up in work, in school, in friendships, and all sorts of other places. So, learning to handle rejection early on in life can help them be more resilient as they get older. It also helps them be the kind of person other people feel safe around. If they’re known as the person who was bummed but respectful when turned down for a date, or who was sad but supportive when their friend made the team and they didn’t, they’re going to find that people are more inclined to be around and trust them because they’ve shown they won’t take their disappointment out on everybody else.

When you’re talking to young people about romantic rejection, there are a few different points you can bring up to help them feel better:

  • Rejection is often about different preferences or needs, not about their inherent worth as a person. Being turned down by a crush doesn’t mean they don’t have lots to offer as an individual; it means the person they approached is looking for something different and that’s okay. There’s a lot of chance involved in finding a person you’re interested in dating who’s also interested in dating you, which means sooner or later everyone gets turned down by someone they like.
  • The person who rejected them is not the only person in the world. I don’t mean this in the “there are plenty of fish in the sea” way, although that’s certainly true. Rather, it can be helpful to help a young person notice all the people in their life who care about them and do want to spend time with them. That shifts the focus away from the pain of the rejection and onto the more positive feelings of support and affection. This can also be a good time to encourage them to do self-care. Sometimes, when a bunch of energy has been focused on a crush or a romantic relationship⁠ , people forget to nurture their relationship with themselves. The period⁠ of time that comes after rejection is a great opportunity to do that.
  • Don’t view it as a dead end. Rejection can feel like opening a door to what you thought was a room full of treasure only to smack face-first into a brick wall. A way to rebound from rejection is to think about the disappointment in new ways. What do you have the opportunity to do now that you know the outcome? Is there anything to learn from the experience?
  • Rejection is a part of life, and it’s also a sign that you’re living. If you never take the risk of sharing your feelings with someone or asking if they’d like to get to know you better, you never get to the chance to see what might come from those confessions. Rejection is proof that you’re trying, and that you’ve got the courage to keep doing so.

Even if you help the young people in your life learn that rejection is not the end of the world, there’s no guarantee that they won’t turn their anger or disappointment on others. But just because we can’t prevent every negative outcome doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to change the conversations and expectations young people have boundaries and rejection. The more we help young people build a culture where everyone’s boundaries are respected, and no one feels they are owed access to another person, the better chance we have of creating a safer, more peaceful world for generations to come.

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