Help kids learn the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging”

Start the school year with important conversations with the kids in your life.

Many families are getting ready for the start of a new school year. This can be an exciting time for young people and often includes joining or reconnecting with clubs, sports, recreation programs and afterschool activities. But it’s important to remember that kids need more than new shoes and school supplies. While school and other youth groups can be wonderful places for kids to learn and grow, they often include challenges and barriers to healthy youth development.

One of those barriers is the emphasis on “fitting in” at all costs. More than we may notice, kids (and adults) are faced with a daily barrage of messages from peer groups, families, the media and organizations that they must “fit in” in order to belong. Messages that young people get about fitting in are often focused on the need to look or be a certain way, wear the “right” clothes, play the “cool” sport, join a certain club or hang out with the “popular” kids. It can be confusing for kids (and adults) because belonging is a basic human need. We all need to feel like we are connected to people and groups larger than ourselves. Belonging is incredibly important to healthy human development and the core is about love, acceptance and connection. According to researcher and educator, Brené Brown, Ph.D., the pressure to fit in is usually shame-based – sending painful and damaging messages to young people that they are not worthy or “good enough.”

Dr. Brown’s research on issues of shame, vulnerability and courage included focus groups with eighth graders who shared the difference between fitting in and belonging, from their perspective. Here are a few quotes from young people as shared in Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead:

  • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
  • Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
  • I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.

Too many adolescents feel pressured to fit in ways that are not healthy to their overall identities around gender, physical appearance, color of skin, sexuality and other aspects of themselves. The pressure to fit in is also linked to issues of bullying. Feeling pressured to fit in at all costs can lead youth (and adults) to participate in unhealthy relationships – or go along with the crowd in the face of hurtful, mean-spirited behaviors.

Parents, families and adults in kids’ lives have important roles to play in helping kids understand the difference between fitting in and belonging. One way to do this is to foster empathy and understanding with the young people in our lives. Let kids know that you are there for them and that you understand how hard the pressure to fit in can be. Share stories about how you struggled as a kid (and perhaps even as an adult) so that young people don’t feel alone and isolated. Help them learn to find the courage to be seen, to be who they are and to seek out other youth and adults that accept them for who they are. Work to create families, schools and youth groups that are grounded in safety, love, connection and belonging.

Brené Brown’s work includes many more parenting suggestions for cultivating creativity, accountability, joy, courage and resiliency. You can download from her website The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, which reminds us that who we are and how we move through the world with our children is a much stronger predictor than what we know about parenting.

Michigan State University Extension incorporates Brené Brown’s research on shame and shame resiliency into some of its educational programs for youth and adults. One effort is called Be SAFE: Safe Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum for adults to use with middle school-aged youth in out-of-school settings. For more information about Be SAFE, visit the MSU Extension bookstore.

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