It’s good for a child’s mental health to feel that they fit in at home, at school or with peers.
But some children feel like outsiders. They get the sense that they don’t belong, and they may doubt that they ever will. Having that feeling is known as belonging uncertainty.
If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable dining in a restaurant or shopping in a clothing store that was beyond your comfort zone, you’ve experienced belonging uncertainty.
Effects of Belonging Uncertainty
When a child regularly experiences belonging uncertainty, it can have negative effects, including low motivation and poor academic performance. Children who feel that they don’t fit in are also more likely to feel isolated and alone, which may lead to anxiety or depression. They may start mistrusting people and expect to experience rejection.
Common Causes of Belonging Uncertainty
Children who are Black, Brown or who are from a family with a lower socioeconomic background may be more likely to experience belonging uncertainty. But any child may feel that they don’t belong for any reason; it’s their perception of the situation.
For example, research has shown that female students may doubt that they belong in STEM classes, where they’re often outnumbered by male students. Female students who experience belonging uncertainty may worry that they’ll get poor grades and conform to negative stereotypes, even if they’re very intelligent.
Children also experience belonging uncertainty during academic transition periods, such as the shift from middle school to high school, or while adjusting to college life after high school.
Although it’s normal and common, research shows that most students have concerns about fitting in during these transition years, especially if they identify as a member of an underrepresented group.
Helping Children with Belonging Uncertainty
If children focus on feelings of belonging uncertainty, they may withdraw from their community. Instead of developing a sense of belonging, their academic performance and mental health may suffer.
But when children learn that they’re not alone and that most people have the same doubting thoughts, they’re more likely to become engaged in their new environment. This reassurance helps to boost feelings of belonging, which should benefit their mental health.
Parents can help children overcome their doubts about fitting in. Try:
- Talk openly about feelings of uncertainty. If your child experiences belonging uncertainty, they may feel incredibly alone. They often assume that they’re the only one who feels that way. Let your child know that it’s common to question whether they fit in. Sharing that most of their peers are having the same thoughts may help your child feel less isolated and disconnected.
- Promote experiences that foster belonging. Your child may feel a sense of belonging uncertainty at school, but they may feel very connected to peers when playing soccer, going to chess tournaments, or attending cultural events. Look for situations where your child feels like they belong and find ways to have them spend more time in those situations to promote a stronger sense of belonging.
When to Seek Help
If you have talked with your child and it’s been several weeks that they have felt isolated or left out in a club, sport or classroom, you may want to take more action.
Start by talking with your child’s teacher or school counselor. If the problems persist, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional.
Remember, it’s common for children (and adults) to feel like they don’t belong sometimes. You can help the children in your life by reminding them that everyone struggles with feeling on the outside sometimes. We have advice on how to help kids develop a sense of belonging.