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9/20/23 blog post

belonging: helping kids thrive in tough times

5 ways we can help kids feel accepted and included

group of teens

“I just don’t feel like I fit in.” 

This is a common phrase we hear from children and teens. We often respond with an inspirational quote to make them feel better such as, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (Dr. Seuss). While this might make our children feel better in the moment (or lead to much eye-rolling), it doesn’t fill a void that some get from not having a sense of belonging.   

Belonging is a feeling of security and support with a sense of being accepted and included. A feeling of belonging is important for children to feel that they matter and to feel they are valued. Brené Brown defines belonging as “being a part of something bigger but also having the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.”  

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, talks about the importance of connection in building resilience (the ability to get through tough times). He says that connection in childhood “provides reassurance that we’ll be OK despite tough times, and it gives us deep-seated security that convinces us we can take chances.” To help you support your child, we’ve categorized 5 main areas of focus to help one “get connected.” While it is not necessary to have a strong connection in all these areas, the more areas we help our children develop a connection in, the greater the sense of belonging they will feel.  We can encourage our children to find connection in the following five areas:  

  1. Accepting oneself 
  2.  Family systems 
  3. Friendships and activities  
  4. School involvement  
  5. Community involvement  

Let’s explore the five categories of connection and ways you can help children and teens increase their sense of belonging. 

1. accepting oneself: 

Accepting oneself is crucial to creating a sense of belonging and confidence. Caring adults can encourage children to find and be comfortable with showing their true authentic selves. This will help them to better navigate a social world pressuring them to “fit in” or fall into peer pressure.  

How to help: 

  • Teach them to appreciate ways they are unique. This can be done in a journal, by having an intentional conversation about it or finding ways to incorporate “all about me” questions in conversations. Some examples of "all about me questions are,  'What are my favorite foods?' 'What is my favorite TV show? 'Do I think it's okay for me to have different likes from others?' 
  • Have discussions with your child about the benefits of being a part of a group while staying true to yourself. Some benefits might be:
    • Being accepted for who you are and not having to pretend to be someone else. 
    • Having healthy and happy friendships. 
    • Being a part of a group and sharing your unique talents, interests, and ideas.  
  • Discuss the difference between fitting in and being accepted for oneself.  
    • Fitting in is changing things about yourself (appearance, interests, behavior etc.) in order to fit into a certain group. While being accepted and belonging is being your true self and having a group of friends, family, or group members accept you for who you are. This group will support and care about you and won’t ask you to change things about yourself.  

2. family systems

When children and teens feel they belong in a family system, they feel a sense of security and safety. It creates a healthy foundation for future relationships and gives them a resource to problem solve. 

How to help: 

  • Develop a family system that includes friends and neighbors. 
  • Share stories that show your family culture or songs from your childhood 
  • Participate in activities together, like kicking a soccer ball at the park or backyard or cooking a meal together. 
  • Introduce them to extended family members if possible.  You can do this by showing pictures and sharing stories about them, talking about your lineage and making an effort to attend extended family gatherings.  
  • Assign age-appropriate responsibilities like household chores and discuss how everyone in the family has a purpose to help each other! 

3. friendships and social activities

When children and teens have positive friendships, they will know how to both give and take help, support, and understanding. Children build confidence by being able to contribute positively to others. They may feel needed by being asked for advice and being relied on during difficult times. They can also build a support system for when they go through difficult times.  

How to help: 

  • Encourage and support your child having multiple, positive friend groups. Friendships can be rocky during adolescence. One minute everyone is getting along and the next they can’t stand each other! Having multiple circles of friends will allow your child to have time away from a friend group that might be causing negative feelings.  
  • Encourage your children to join groups, activities, or clubs of their interests so they can meet people with similar interests as them. This will also add value by being a part of a group working towards a common goal.  
  • Be open and accepting that there are many different activities that can teach similar skills. For example, an academic or debate team can teach teamwork, hard work, and dedication just  as much as a sports team does. Help your child pick an activity they will enjoy, learn new skills, and be successful in, not necessarily one that you enjoy watching or that you used to participate in as a kid. Take an interest in the activities your child is participating in to show that you care and support them.  
  • Promote relationship building by supporting your children and teens hanging out with positive friend groups. Host these friend groups at your house or be accommodating so they can schedule in much-needed friend time.  
  • Get together with other families with children similar to your children’s ages. This will help them grow bonds and relationships in a safe and secure environment. A bonus is that you can bond and share advice with other parents raising children in similar phases of life.   
  • Continue to celebrate your child’s unique qualities and encourage belonging over fitting in. Connecting with friends and social groups will be more challenging if your child has not accepted themselves yet.  

4. school involvement

Belonging at school brings the additional benefit of academic success. When children feel they belong at school, they are more likely to ask questions, feel comfortable making mistakes, and want to come to school. Helping your child to feel connected at school can be a challenge because there is a lot outside of our control. While there is a universal push for schools to be a more inclusive place for all students, there are some things a caring adult can do to help their child create more connection within their school environment.  

How to help: 

  • Help your child identify at least one safe and caring adult they can go to during school hours. Help facilitate a conversation between this adult and your child if needed. 
  • Encourage your child to find at least one school activity to be involved in. This can be an academic club, music, volunteer group, or sports team. Home-schooled children can also be encouraged to join activities through homeschool co-ops, special events or groups, or participate in extracurricular activities.  
  • Help your child identify positive peer relationships at school. They might say that they don’t have friends, so help them to identify some acquaintances or friendly classmates that could be developed into friendships.  
  • Children who attend school online can be encouraged and taught safe and appropriate ways to engage with their fellow online classmates.  
  • Don’t assume that your child knows how to maneuver social situations. Listen to their stories and decide if they need helpful guidance.  

5. community involvement

When children and teens are involved in community activities (like volunteering for Earth Day clean-ups, planting a community garden, or participating in a church group),they learn that they can be a part of something much larger than themselves. They can gain confidence by being able to share their talents and abilities with others. They will also learn about other people’s perspectives and ways of living.  

How to help: 

  • Expose your children to community groups  that help others or are focused on building a sense of community. This can be like a volunteer club or a church group. Volunteer groups like Builder’s Club, Youth Optimist Club, and Key Club are great places to start.  
  • Be a positive role model to your children of what a positive community member looks like by modeling actions like saying “hi” to your neighbors.  
  • Volunteer at local charities or donate to food drives. You can even volunteer with your child at a school event!
  • Donate other used items, for example, you can invite your child to help you take old towels to an animal shelter.  

Start the conversation about belonging  

The best way you can help your child build a sense of belonging is by having a conversation with them about it. The more we normalize conversations in our homes, the more likely parents will be able to notice changes in a child’s behavior.  

In starting conversations remember these helpful tips: 

  1. Find a quiet undistracted time to talk 
  2. Focus on listening and understanding your child 
  3. Use the following conversation starter questions: 
  • What do you think is the difference between fitting-in and belonging? 
  • How do you feel when you are not included in something or not invited to a birthday party? 
  • Talk about a time when you felt that you didn’t belong.  
  • How can you help others to feel more included? 
  • What makes you special and unique? 
  • What are some activities you enjoy doing together as a family? 
  • What types of activities do you enjoy doing with your friends? 

Click here to learn more about starting conversations.

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Emily Weitz, BSW, LSW

Community Behavioral Health Outreach Specialist
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