Rejection is the unspoken risk that is present when we enter into any relationship be it a friendship or a love relationship. It’s a painful, inescapable part of life that most of us go to great lengths to avoid. That said, there’s a social media phenomenon called “ghosting” that can take the pain of rejection to surprising depths — especially among teens.
Ghosting is when a person (or friend group) you’ve been talking to online suddenly stops all communication without any explanation.
If you’re on the receiving end of the ghosting, consider yourself ghosted. Text conversations abruptly stop. You get blocked on all social media accounts. The ghost untags him or herself in all past photos on your profiles and deletes all past comments; theirs and yours. Direct messages (if not blocked) are marked as “seen” but never get a response.
Ghosting makes it feel as if a relationship never existed, which can leave anyone — child, teen, or adult — feeling hurt, frustrated, betrayed and even traumatized.
A teen named Jess* shared her ghosting experience and described feeling “helpless, confused, and worthless,” when a person she considered a boyfriend suddenly disappeared from her life after five months and started talking to another girl online. “One minute we were close and sharing all kinds of deep stuff and then, ‘poof’! He blocked me from his social media, stopped answering my texts, and started ignoring me at school. It’s as if I never existed to him.”
Rejection = Pain
In one study, MRI images showed that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience a social rejection as when we experience physical pain, which is why rejection can hurt so much. According to Dr. Guy Winch, rejection destabilizes our need to belong and causes us to question our self-worth. “We often respond to romantic rejections by finding fault in ourselves, bemoaning all our inadequacies, kicking ourselves when we’re already down, and smacking our self-esteem into a pulp.” Rather, he clarifies, rejection is often just a matter of being mismatched in several areas such as chemistry, goals, and commitment level.
Thanks to social media, ghosting is not only a term but a common (albeit cruel) way to end an online relationship. Because it’s digital it’s easier for some people to view others as avatars; and easier to block rather than confront. It doesn’t help that the online culture fosters micro-rejections at every turn especially for tweens and teens. With every photo that is uploaded, so too, is a young person’s bid for approval. It’s not uncommon that a child’s happiness (or lack of) is influenced by the number of likes and comments a photo racks up.
While it may be impossible to protect our kids from painful digital rejections, we can equip them to handle it when and if it comes their way. Here are a few ideas that may help ease the pain of being ghosted.
Acknowledge the hurt
No doubt, being ghosted hurts and can be embarrassing for your child (or anyone for that matter) to even talk about so tread lightly if you suspect it. Listen more than you speak and empathize more than advise if you learn this is a situation your child is experiencing. Acknowledge the real pain of being cut off, dismissed, blocked, and ignored. Ghosting can happen between two people or even with a friend group. If you have a similar situation and can relate, share that experience with your child.
Help frame the situation
Tweens and teens often do not have the tools they need in their emotional toolbox to deal with confrontation. Nor are they pros at communicating. So, rather than exit a relationship properly, some kids will find it easier to disappear with a simple click or two. Help your child understand the bigger picture that not all people will act with integrity or kindness. And, not all people are meant to be your friend or romantic match, and that’s okay. There are plenty of people who will value, love, and treat them with respect.
Help set healthy standards
Being ghosted, while painful, is also an opportunity to help your son or daughter define or re-define his or her standards. Ask: What qualities and characteristics you value in a friend or love interest? What values do you need to share with another person before trusting them? What warning signs should you look for next time that a person isn’t friend material? Advise: Don’t always be the person initiating every conversation, pay attention to the quality of interactions, don’t pursue people who are unresponsive or constantly “busy.”
While some ghosting situations are mild and dismissed quickly, others can cause the person ghosted to feel humiliated, angry, and vengeful. Lashing out at or trolling a ghost online as payback isn’t the answer and will only prolong the pain of being ghosted. Encourage your child that discovering the person’s character now is a gift and that moving on with wisdom and integrity (minus conflict) is the fastest way to heal.
Help them move on
One huge pain point for people who have been ghosted is that he or she did not get any closure or insight as to why the relationship ended. To help with this, you might suggest your son or daughter write a letter to get all the feelings out — but never mail it. Need the satisfaction of posting that letter online (minus names)? There’s a site for that (warning: language).
Beware of haunting
Haunting is when a ghost tries to reconnect in small ways over time. He or she may resurface to leave a comment or periodic likes to test the re-entry climate. Some may even send a direct message trying to explain the poor behavior. While every situation is different, warn your kids against reconnecting with anyone who would ghost a relationship. Encourage your child to invest time in friends who value friendships and honor the feelings of others.