When your child doesn’t fit in

When your child doesn’t fit in

When your child doesn’t “fit in”, how can you encourage him to embrace his uniqueness? Should you try to help him fit in with others? What should you do when your child compares himself to the “popular kids”?

My daughter was very lucky when she started secondary school, as she found a supportive , stable and healthy friendship group straight away. My son will be transferring to secondary school this year, and I will wait nervously to see whether he will be as fortunate.

Why evolution makes children want to fit in.

Some children are able to embrace their uniqueness and don’t care if they fit in or not. This is wonderful to see. However, we are a social species. When teens and pre-teens naturally start to move away from their parents and explore independence, most will instinctively want to find a friendship group. We have evolved to become part of groups in order to stay alive (for example, group protection from predators). In past times, people who were not in a group were less likely to stay alive. So it is unsurprising that children’s brains try to tell them to change who they are inside, in order to fit in with others. This is one of the main reasons why the teenage years can be so tough for anyone who has differences, for example:

  • neurological differences (such as autism);
  • intellectual differences (for example, being extremely intelligent);
  • unusual or “niche” interests or beliefs;
  • children from minority ethnic or cultural groups who may not have other children from a similar background around them;
  • children who identify with a different gender than that with which they were born, or who are exploring a different gender identity.

Group dynamics

When your child doesn’t fit in straight away, it is completely understandable that he may compare himself with “popular” kids who are central members of a group. These “alpha” males or females seem to be able to draw people in around them, often loyal followers who feel safer because they are associating with the “alphas”. In order to create a close-knit group and establish their authority however, this group can end up deliberately excluding others, or putting others down.

Searching for kindred spirits

Even if your child has not been deliberately excluded or put down, he may not feel as though he has found a social group where he fits in. He may appear to be flitting between groups, trying to find one where he can be relaxed in himself. It can feel desperate for both parent and child, when when your child doesn’t fit in easily. This can have a crushing impact on aspects of his self-esteem, including his sense of competence in relationships.

Things level out as children become adults

There is one important reason why your child should feel assured that things will get better. Children who do not fit in do not usually become adults who do not fit in.

Once we start to enter adulthood, that urgency to fit in is not as powerful. Usually we have found at least one or two strong friendships which give us a sense of security. This makes us feel that we do not have to try so hard to fit in with others. The “alpha” kids are also (generally) feeling more secure, and don’t have to exclude others or put others down in order to maintain their position. There is just less pressure.

The pressure lessens even more when people start to enter romantic relationships (a different type of pressure in itself however), and eventually have a family, so that the importance of the friendship group diminishes even further.

In essence, my experience is that people are much nicer to one another, once they are around sixteen years of age and above. What’s more, individuality and diversity are celebrated much more because everybody is feeling more secure and less threatened by differences. So, it gets easier.

What can you do to help when your child doesn’t “fit in”?

1. Don’t panic

Particularly if he is flitting between social groups but hasn’t yet found the right one, my experience is that most children find their “crew” eventually. He will know when he has found it. The group will be supportive and respectful of one another, and your child will feel relaxed when he is with them.

2. Reassure your child confidently

Tell him it will get better, using my argument above!

3. Support a range of social opportunities

If your child doesn’t fit in at school, he may have been unlucky with the dynamics of the group. For example, he may be a keen musician in a class full of sporty kids. Ensure your child has plenty of socialising opportunities outside of school. This might be a sports team, a community (such as church or mosque), a club (like scouts or cadets) or a hobby (such as an astronomy club).

4. Think outside the box

If your child has different or unusual interests that are not mainstream, or feels different from school friends for another reason, it may be harder for him to make face-to-face or local friends. Help him look for online communities and groups, or regional or national opportunities for children with similar interests to meet up and become friends.

5. Consider building his skills

Is your child struggling with some of the skills needed to build and maintain good friendships? Read my post on friendships, and the chapter on friendships in Brighter Futures, the book I co-wrote.

6. Encourage healthy friendships, not just any friendships

Help your child to aim for the right friends. In other words, friends with shared values and interests. He should not try to fit in with anyone and everyone. Chat with him. What is he looking for in a friend? Perhaps someone who is funny and kind, or perhaps someone with whom he can have intellectual conversations about politics! What does he think he can offer to a friendship? What are his values? (Read this post as a starting point.) Help steer him towards friendships where children share the same values.

7. Work towards high internal self-worth

Reassure him that it is natural to compare himself to others. Work to help him hold his self worth internally rather than externally. High internal self-worth means not allowing himself to be defined by outside influences, including people’s opinions. This is so tough to achieve, and many of us adults struggle with it sometimes. But it is what he should aim for ultimately. It will evolve gradually, through experiences of competence, resilience and optimism (the three key markers of self-esteem). Reinforce his value as a being rather than a “doing,” (make sure he knows he is valuable for who he is, not what he does, or how many friends he has).

8. Ensure your child’s school is on board

Make sure your child’s school is doing everything they can to help him find a solid and secure friendship group. Ensure they are providing alternative options if there is a chance your child could be spending break times alone. For example, they could encourage him to join the history club if they know this is an interest, or “engineer” some group situations with individuals who may be a healthy match. Don’t be afraid to ask. This could make the difference between a happy, thriving child and an unhappy, lonely one. Make sure you aim to work as a partnership with your child’s school and it doesn’t become a “them and us” battle. If you feel the school are unable to meet your child’s social and emotional needs however, consider a change of school.

9. Celebrate differences

Do everything you can to celebrate your child’s incredible differences. This website recommends some lovely books for a variety of ages, all about being different. The Book Trust is also a fantastic resource for finding inspiring books about not fitting in. You can search by age, and enter keywords such as “individuality”, “diversity” or “friendship”.

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