The need to belong is immensely powerful. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines belonging as "the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us." Pam Dunn emphasizes the significance of belonging in her book, It’s Time to Look Inside. She writes, “When a person’s need to belong is unfulfilled, like when they don’t feel like they belong in a certain group or when they feel judged, they will become either the bully or the victim.”
Children experience their sense of belonging initially at home, then later with neighborhood friends, on teams, and at school. We experience it as adults in our families, at our places of worship, at work, and in organizations such as book clubs, sports teams, and political parties. That sense of belonging can get disrupted when we move or change jobs; when someone dies; when a new child enters a family; or when you get married or re-married. A child’s sense of belonging can get disrupted when he changes grade levels or schools; when his friend moves away; when he becomes a big brother or big sister; or when his parents get a divorce. Any time our orbit in our world gets shaken, our sense of belonging feels the wobble. It could be, as Pam Dunn says, when we feel judged. At any of those moments, we shop around to see how we belong in the new dynamic or our new “world.”
Parents can do many things to remain sensitive to their child’s need to belong. When children belong, they feel encouraged. They have a solid, safe, and secure foundation from which to spring. They feel empowered to take healthy risks and to follow their soul’s desires. They have the resilience to bounce back from a fall or try another avenue when their path is obstructed. Here are a few things to consider.
1. Children belong when they feel heard and their emotions are validated
Listening, especially to the feelings behind your child’s words or actions, will make all of the difference in the world. Listening means avoiding minimizing or dismissing experiences that may seem inconsequential to you as an adult and are big deals for your children. An example is your child’s friend being absent from school. For a young child, that absence may be earth shaking. Your first response may be to reassure your child by saying, “It’s not a big deal. Jane will be back tomorrow. It’s only one day.” Although true, your child will feel deeply heard by simply saying, “You must have missed her” or “Sounds like you felt sad when Jane wasn’t there.” Go for the feelings behind the words.
2. Children belong when they are encouraged rather than praised
Providing your child with usable information as well as feedback on his efforts – rather than on an end result such as a grade or the winning run in a game – are powerful tools for building belonging. For example, notice the difference between saying “Great hit!” and “The way you focused on the ball from the moment it left the pitcher’s hand really worked for you in making that hit”. Another example is to ask, “What did you do to change that ‘C’ to an ‘A’? I noticed that you studied every day during the last semester.” That is much more powerful than praising the end result – the ‘A’. Those examples focus on your child’s efforts and they give concrete, usable feedback.
3. Children belong when their family honors peaceful problem solving
Your child will have disagreements with siblings and with you. There is no getting around that! Rather than you solving your children’s problems for them, teach them to resolve them peacefully themselves. One key is to have an agreement in your family that if one person has an issue with someone else, he will address it directly with that person rather than talking about it with other family members (other than to get some assistance in solving it). That agreement holds people accountable, prevents others from feeling judged by family members talking about them behind their backs, and shows that you honor problem solving.
4. Children belong when you model and experience your own self-acceptance
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown wrote, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are. Because this yearning [to belong] is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” The most power thing you can do to enhance your child’s self-acceptance is to expand your own and then model self-acceptance around making mistakes, around feeling your feelings, and around being vulnerable.