Normalising rejection in relationships education

Laura Coryton explains why talking about rejection matters and offers tips on how to prepare young people for it through PSHE and beyond

Laura Coryton explains why talking about rejection matters and offers tips on how to prepare young people for it through PSHE and beyond

10 Oct 2023, 5:00

Last week, headlines were dominated by the horrendous murder of a 15-year-old girl in Croydon. But this event represents a much wider, systemic problem. Jess Philips MP recently took five minutes in parliament to read aloud all the names of the women murdered in similar circumstances over the past 12 months. “On average,” she added, “a woman is killed by a man every 2.6 days in this country”.

This dreadful statistic and continuous flow of headlines showcases how incel ideology can influence everyday schoolboys. Incels – short for  ‘involuntary celibates’ – are a group of online, largely male individuals who feel the world is strategically organised in a looks-hierarchy, in which men are used by women for looks, money or both. Incels are groomed to believe women intend to use men, which makes them feel alone and useless.

A simple act of rejection – like turning down a bunch of flowers – can be enough to vindicate this ideology and spark the rage and misogyny underpinning it.

This problem is too vast and deep-rooted for schools to solve alone. However, normalising rejection as part of wider discussions about healthy relationships in PSHE (and elsewhere) can go a long way to undermine incel ideology’s grip.

To achieve this, it’s important for teachers of all year groups to stress that rejection is a normal human experience, something everyone – male and female – deals with at various points in their lives.

During our workshops we often ask the whole class to raise their hands if they’ve ever been rejected. Students always light up in astonishment when they see everyone in the room raise a hand, including teachers.

We then ask if anyone would like to share their stories of rejection. Some are very powerful. This helps normalise the experience and frame it as a shared human experience rather than a rare indicator of failure.

But it’s not enough to stop there. It’s important also to talk through how to deal with rejection. We talk through three steps, and aligning those to the experiences students have shared allows them to learn together, no matter their gender.

Recognise rejection

Due to fear of violence or embarrassment, often someone might not feel able to say ‘no’ or to reject another person clearly. Instead, they might make a nervous laugh or showcase uncomfortable body language, which can be particularly challenging for SEND students to recognise.

In these circumstances, students can wait for clear enthusiasm. For example, a student should wait for their crush to enthusiastically accept their request for a date before organising it. Anything less than enthusiasm is not consent.

Accept no for an answer

Next, students must accept they’re being rejected as soon as possible. The best way to respect someone’s boundaries and desires after being rejected by them is to tell them it’s okay and to give them the space they need. Despite the famous saying, students should never ‘try, try, and try again’, as this can quickly lead to coercion. One rejection is always enough.

Own your feelings

Being rejected can feel embarrassing and painful, and it’s okay to feel however you need to feel. It’s not okay to take those feelings out on others. The key is to find a way to release those emotions safely.

Crying, journaling, talking to friends and family – all of these and more are normal and productive. However, dominant ideas about masculinity can make it harder for boys and men to find outlets to express themselves. It’s important to signpost additional support as well as encourage different attitudes among peer groups.

Talking about rejection openly, calmly and regularly can turn rejection from something scary and anger-inducing into a normal human experience. Amid the onslaught of social media pressures, it could be a protective lifeline for the young men and women in our classrooms.


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