Help Your Child Find a Sense of Belonging

There were 20 kids in the whole school. If you were in a clique, you were pretty much by yourself!
—Marla Sokoloff

Few young people these days find it as easy as actress Marla Sokoloff did to avoid getting involved in groups that in some way pick on or exclude others. That’s because all young people need a sense of belonging to something real and important. If they don’t find it in healthy ways, they will be more likely to engage in risky relationships and environments. Early in their lives, children’s families primarily fill this need. This will change as they get older and peers become increasingly important. As a parent, you can help them at every step of the way choose positive circles in which to travel. Here are some suggestions:

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Help your children develop empathy by responding positively when they reach out to others. For example: “It was nice of you to play with Sadie when the other kids told her she couldn’t use the blocks.”
    • When you see groups of children leaving others out or being mean to them, talk to the other parents or caregivers about putting a stop to that behavior.
    • Have a “You can’t say you can’t play” rule in your home. It means that a child can decide to remove her- or himself from a group situation, but a group playing together cannot turn away anyone who wants to respectfully join in.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Encourage your child to develop friendships of all ages in a number of different settings, such as school, a faith community, your neighborhood, or your extended family.
    • Nurture connections between your family and families of your children’s friends. Then, if you start to suspect that some children are being left out or picked on, you and your child will both have “allies” in working through the situation.
    • Make clear to your children your feelings about friendships, cliques, gangs, and other relationship issues.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Stay connected with your children: Spend time volunteering at school, supervising their activities with friends (from a distance, if they prefer), and simply talking with them. Make sure you can always contact them, and they can contact you.
    • Role play scenarios involving groups of peers: “What would you do if Tina IM’d (instant messaged) you saying that there was going to be a party on Friday but not to tell Victoria because she’s so weird, no one wants her to come?” or “What if Rico told you that he wanted you to help him fight Ross after school because Ross insulted Rico’s girlfriend?”
    • Encourage your children to choose styles of clothing and grooming that suit them and their (or your) budget, rather than show their allegiance to a particular group or trend.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Continue to give positive reinforcement for the positive friendship behaviors you like to see, such as kindness, empathy, understanding, and compassion.
    • Hang around your teenagers and their friends sometimes. Ask questions, listen to their responses, and pay attention to how they interact with each other. Go out on a limb and correct behavior that bothers you or compliment behavior that you want to reinforce.
  • It’s harder at this age than in younger years for many young people to find activities or programs that interest them. Help your teen find out what’s available in your community, and how to become involved. Consider non-traditional options—such as leadership training, life skills development, or community service—that go beyond sports and music.