Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Children and Chronic Sorrow: Reconceptualizing the Emotional Impact of Parental Rejection and Its Treatment

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Children and Chronic Sorrow: Reconceptualizing the Emotional Impact of Parental Rejection and Its Treatment

Article excerpt

The concept of chronic sorrow offers afresh perspective for understanding the negative emotional impact of parental rejection on children. Additionally, it provides a clinical alternative to coercion for breaking through children's emotional defenses against further rejection in caregiving relationships.


It was Christmas day, and Nancy, a 14-year-old only child who lived with her mother, was thrilled at the prospect of seeing her father again for the first time in almost a year. He had promised to take her for a "Christmas lunch" and then to see The Nutcracker, which was being performed by a local drama group. In the 3 years since her mother and father divorced, her father had relocated, and although he lived within an hour from Nancy and her mother, his contact with Nancy had steadily dwindled to an occasional call every 6 months or so, despite promises to contact her more often. Aware of her alcoholic ex-husband's lack of dependability in the past, Nancy's mother had tried to prepare Nancy for possible disappointment on this occasion, but Nancy's enthusiasm was not to be dampened, since her father had previously canceled a visit planned on her birthday and had made a "solemn promise" that he would spend Christmas day with her. When the time of his scheduled arrival came and passed, Nancy called her father to see why he was running late. Her father answered the telephone, and she could tell that he had been drinking and could hear other people talking and laughing in the background. He told Nancy that he was planning to call her because he had had car trouble and wouldn't be able to make it. He added that she would really like the Christmas present he had for her, and that he would reschedule another outing for them very soon. Slamming the phone down on the table, Nancy threw herself on the sofa and turned on the TV. Realizing what had happened, her mother asked Nancy if she wanted to talk about it, and Nancy angrily replied, "He did it again--I hate him!" Trying to hold back her tears, she asked, "Am I really that bad to be with?" To the reassurance from her mother that she had done nothing wrong, Nancy only replied, "Just promise you won't ever leave me!"

Nancy's response suggests more than just disappointment in her father; it shows signs that she has come to feel rejected by him. (Note. The client's name and some details have been altered to protect client privacy.) According to Hardy (2002), "The most egregious form of rejection that anyone can ever experience is parental rejection." When children feel that their parents do not love them, they may come to believe that they are unlovable and undeserving of respect and dignity as worthwhile individuals (Rohner, Khaleque, & Cournoyer, 2005). It has been well documented that children run a heightened risk for developing psychological, social, and emotional problems when they believe they have been rejected by one or both of their natural parents.

Psychologically, this belief (or reality) can lead children to evaluate themselves and their futures negatively, making them vulnerable for internalizing behaviors such as depression or psychosomatic illness and for externalizing behaviors such as hyperactivity and aggression (Magro & Weiss, 2006). Their negative self-evaluation stems from an as-yet undeveloped ability to differentiate their view of themselves from their negative view of rejecting parents whom they essentially see as part of themselves (Hamilton, 1989). Being limited developmentally to see beyond their own role in the parent-child relationship, rejected children can only assume that they were somehow unworthy of their parents' acceptance and responsible for the rejection. Intense shame and guilt are the characteristic by-products of this false assumption (H. E. Thomas, 1999).

Ainsworth (in Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) described the damage done to children socially as a result of several patterns of rejecting parental involvement. …

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