So your three-year-old isn’t getting invited to playdates and you’re beginning to wonder – do they have any friends? Are they ever going to fit in? We do this often as parents. Something is going on with our young child, and suddenly, we flash forward to their 18th birthday-are they going to be alone? Wanting our kids to feel safe and connected to their friends is completely normal. Belonging is a basic human need. How can we ensure that the things we are doing today are equipping our kids to find true belonging, and not just shifting who they are to fit in.
Wait, aren’t fitting in and belonging the same thing? On the surface they seem to be the same, but they are sending very different messages to our kids. When kids try to fit in, they often look around to their friends to decide what to say, play, or wear. Kids are able to belong when they look inside themselves to decide what to say, play or wear. Here are three ideas to consider as you build a sturdy foundation for true belonging in your home.
#1 Offer unconditional love
Making sure your kids know you love them for who they are, not what they do or how they behave, is number one. In order for kids to feel like they belong out in the world, they have to belong at home first. Having this constant at home, reminds them of their true belonging wherever they are. You can do this in so many little moments.
For example: When your child comes out of their room ready for the day, instead of saying, “You look so cute today,” try saying, “I am so happy to see you this morning.” You can model connecting to who they are inside, instead of what is on the outside.
#2 Help them belong to themselves first
Belonging is our ability to be who we are. You can help your child identify that inner voice so they know who they are. As you develop that safe space at home, where they know they will always belong, be sure to encourage them to voice their wants and needs. When your child sees that you trust them, they are more likely to develop self-trust. Those little things we say can really make a big difference.
For example: If your child wants to try a new food, but you think they won’t like their choice, instead of saying, “You don’t like that. You always choose mac and cheese,” try saying, “Wow. I’ve never seen you choose that one. Can you tell me what looks interesting about that meal?” When you ask them what is going on inside, you are encouraging them to reflect on that inner wisdom and showing them you acknowledge their autonomy. This builds their confidence in that inner voice and helps them to identify it even when you are not there.
#3 Encourage them to pause and tap into their inner voice
Eventually our kids will have to venture out into the world. Asking your kids about their friendships, classmates, and other relationships can be helpful in supporting their skills away from home. You can talk to them about how they feel around certain kids, or what they think makes a good friend. Here are some questions you can ask even young children. “What is a good friend?” “How do you know someone is a good friend?” or “What happens in your body when someone isn’t being a good friend?” Helping kids notice their physical body cues, and what they want in friendship helps them find places they can belong. Additionally, having the confidence to stand up for themselves when something doesn’t feel right starts at home. When you reflect with kids about their friendships, you can give them some ideas about what to say when they are being pressured to fit in, instead of belong.
For example: When your child comes home and says, “I have to cut my hair, because my friends said only girls have long hair.” Try asking them what they think. They may just need skills to advocate for themselves. Suggest responses like, “That’s not true. I am a boy and I like my long hair,” or “I think differently about that. I have long hair and I really like it.”
We don’t always say things perfectly as parents – and we really don’t have to. Sending a message to our children that they belong and don’t have to change who they truly are to fit can be done in a million little ways throughout the day. If we ever unintentionally send a message to our children that they need to “fit in” there is always a way to repair and encourage a sense of belonging in our homes. Try out some of these tools today and join us in creating a world where we all feel like we belong. If you want to learn more, check out these social emotional learning books and resources, and watch our “Together We Shine” film, all created to help children feel confident to be their own unique self.