I picked my 13 year old daughter up from a sleepover where the girls had made tie dyed t-shirts for a school activity. My daughter entered the vehicle and as I complemented her on her shirt she burst into tears. Oops I had said the wrong thing apparently and didn’t know what or why! “It sucks and its more white than colour and I hate it”. As I attempt to make it okay and make it “no big deal” she elaborates saying “everyone said how much they liked each others and they said nothing about mine, I look different from everyone else”. In my desperate attempt to have her stop crying and “fix it” I desperately try to sell her on the fact that it is unique just like her and to embrace her uniqueness and that it makes her different and that is a good thing! Her head snaps in my direction, tears streaming down her face and she says “I DON’T WANT TO BE DIFFERENT!”
I forgot. Although uniqueness and being different can be celebrated, for teens not feeling like you fit in can translate on how you feel about yourself. Feeling like you “fit in” and having a strong sense of belonging helps teens in several ways:
1. Belonging increases coping and life skills. Our first place that we need to feel that we belong is within our family. Here we can model skills that will help us make good life decisions in the future. When we belong to a group we have the opportunity for our own learning and that from the experiences of others. My daughter had to learn how to cope with this situation and build the skills to come up with a solution (well with my help of course when I was going to buy her whatever she needed) lol
2. Belonging increases self esteem and self confidence. When you feel like you truly fit in and like you belong to something it can give you a sense of purpose and a belief in yourself. For my daughter, she was able to feel good about being part of her group, to contribute and eventually succeed at the activity they were doing at school.
3. Belonging builds our sense of identity. My daughter my have been resistant to being “different” from her peers but it gave her the opportunity to explore who she is in relation to the group.
4. Belonging reduces isolation. This is the biggy. The risks of isolation are just too high for our children. With rates of depression going up for our youth, isolation is just a risk. My daughter was willing to miss the school activity rather than be different.
So was it about the tie dyed shirt for my daughter? No. That feeling of belonging was being threatened and she was reacting. And well yes let’s face it so was I. So what happened? My daughter called her friend and asked if she could use her colours to redo her shirt (life skill). However, after one night of allowing the shirt to dry she came to realize that there was more colour than she had originally thought. Crisis averted. She went to school and participated in The Amazing Race (as opposed to not going and isolating herself). She went on to win the Amazing Race with her group and realized that she does at times blow things out of proportion and learned there is always a solution (coping skills and lesson in identity). Am I rejecting differences? Absolutely not! I feel they are just as important. What I am acknowledging is that we all feel the need to fit in and belong to something, whether that be family, sports groups, coffee chats, or a virtual community. Think about it, what gives you a sense of belonging?