When your child isn’t fitting in at school, how can you encourage them to embrace their uniqueness? Should you try to help them fit in with others? What should you do when your child compares themselves to the “popular kids”?
This article considers the most important things to do to support a child of any change when they feel they don’t fit in.
Is Your Child Struggling Socially At School?
If your child is struggling socially at school it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them. It could be related to the dynamics.
For example, if most of the kids in the class like football but your child is more into gaming, it might be tough for them.
Difficulty fitting in with others may also be related to developmental stage. Perhaps your child is a little young for their age in a class where everyone else is trying to act like an adult? Or vice versa. These issues are surprisingly common. As a clinical psychologist working with children, I see it regularly in my clinic.
In a 2018 report by the Office For National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, 11.3% of children aged 10-15 reported feeling lonely “often”.
Social interaction is tough, particularly in adolescence. There are seemingly endless directions you could take.
What’s the right thing to do?
Should I try to hang out with a new group or stick with this one in my comfort zone?
Should I act the clown or be myself and risk others calling me weird or boring?
Is it better to hang out with the larger group or stick with two or three people with whom I know there is common ground?
Transitions and Time: When Your Child Isn’t Fitting In
The transition from primary school or middle school to secondary and the monumental task of making new friends can feel overwhelming. It can be a hard time even for those who thrived in their previous school environment.
My daughter was very lucky when she started high school, as she found a supportive, stable and healthy friendship group straight away. It took my son a little longer to settle and he had a tough time in year seven, but he has now found his crew of good friends and it has made the world of difference to his happiness.
However, for some children it can take a long time to settle into a friendship group or even to feel they have one friend who is the right fit. It’s really important for your child to understand this. They have a lot to give in their friendships. But time is needed for them to figure out how to give it, and who it’s best to give it to.
Your Child Not Fitting In At School: Understanding Evolution and Social Groups
Some children embrace their uniqueness and don’t care if they fit in or not. This is wonderful to see. However, we are a social species and this isn’t the case for most children. When teens and pre-teens naturally start to move away from their parents and explore independence in social settings, 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.
Whilst in the short term this can help them avoid being alone, in the long term it can contribute to problems with their sense of identity and self-esteem if they end up with a group where they don’t feel they can be accepted as their true selves.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Differences and Your Child Not Fitting In
As we saw above, for evolutionary and survival reasons children and young people tend to want to fit in with others at all costs. However, once “in”, sometimes kids have a strong urge to leave others out of the group. Those who are left out are usually those who are seen as different in some way.
It’s not kind. Deliberate social exclusion may be considered as bullying.
But some kids may leave others out because they feel it somehow strengthens their own sense of identity, and makes them feel special because they are “in”.
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).
- Developmental delay in a particular area.
- Physical disabilities.
- Intellectual differences (for example, having very high cognitive ability for their age;
- Special needs / special educational needs.
- Unusual or “niche” interests or beliefs.
- Those with a physical reason for feeling different, such as being very tall or being overweight.
- 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.
If you’re interested in understanding why some children exclude others, take a loom at a book called Children and Social Exclusion: Morality, Prejudice, and Group Identity by Melanie Killen and Adam Rutland
When your Child Doesn’t Fit In: Group Dynamics
When your child doesn’t fit in straight away, it is completely understandable that they may compare themselves 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. They are often loyal followers who feel safer because they are associating with the “alphas”.
To create a close-knit group and establish their authority however, this group can end up deliberately excluding others, or putting others down.
There are always alternative groups but social problems may arise if your child feels “shoe-horned” into a particular group that is not the best fit for them. They may also end up trying to change their identity to feel accepted. This does not lead to healthy relationships.
Searching for Kindred Spirits
Even if your child has not been deliberately excluded or put down, they may not feel as though they have found a good friend or a social group where they fit in.
Many children long for best friends and feel they have never really experienced that level of closeness. They may flit between groups trying to find one where they can feel accepted or relaxed.
For parents of kids who have not found strong friendships it can be crushing to watch your child struggle, when you know your child has so much to offer. It can feel desperate for both parent and child when when your child doesn’t fit in easily. This can have a big impact on self-esteem and confidence in social interaction.
Things Level Out With Age
There is one important reason why your child should feel assured that things will get better. Younger kids who do not fit in do not usually become adults who do not fit in.
Quirky kids may become quirky adults, but quirky adults are often highly prized as friends.
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 don’t 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 To Do When Your Child Isn’t Fitting In
1. Don’t Panic
Particularly if they are flitting between social groups but haven’t yet found the right one, my experience is that most children find their “crew” eventually. They will know when they have found it. The group will be supportive and respectful of one another, and your child will feel relaxed when they are with them.
2. Reassure Your Child Confidently
You play a vital role. You must convey the message that there is nothing wrong with your child. Explain that it will get better, using my argument above!
3. Support a Range of Social Opportunities
If your child doesn’t fit in at school, they may have been unlucky with the dynamics of the group. For example, they may be a keen musician in a class full of sporty kids. Ensure your child has plenty of socialising opportunities outside of school as well as exploring school activities.
As your child grows up it’s not as simple as organising a play date for them, but there are many opportunities to be discovered. This might be local team sports, a community (such as church or mosque), a club (like scouts or cadets) or a hobby (such as an astronomy club).
Even if new situations are difficult for your child, support them as best you can to get out of their comfort zone.
4. Think Outside The Box (Online, Regional and National Opportunities)
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 them to make face-to-face or local friends. Help them look for online communities and groups, or regional or national social activities for children with similar interests to meet up and become friends.
Social media or gaming may provide opportunities that your child wouldn’t get in their immediate face to face environment. Social media is often villified but if it is used responsibly with appropriate monitoring from a parent, it can be a lifeline for some shy or sensitive kids.
5. Consider Building Social Skills
Chidren’s social abilities develop at different rates. Is your child struggling with some of the skills needed to build and maintain good friendships?
For example, if they struggle to identify and respond appropriately to social cues or body language, others may accept them less readily.
As a first step read my article on friendship skills. Building social skills is not always an appropriate solution though and must be considered carefully. Sometimes it would put too much pressure on your child.
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. They should not try to fit in with anyone and everyone in their peer group.
What is your child looking for in close friends? What are the “ingredients” that make up genuine friends. What values are important to your child? Perhaps someone who is funny and kind, or perhaps someone with common interests. What are the best things your child can offer to a friendship?
You have that unique parent’s sense in terms of which friendships to steer them towards or away from. Ultimately children must follow their own paths but do not underestimate your own experiences and intuition.
7. Work Towards High Internal Self-Worth
Reassure your child that it is natural to compare themselves to others. Work to help them hold their self-worth internally rather than externally.
High internal self-worth means not allowing yourself to be defined by outside influences, including people’s opinions. A lot of times this is so tough to achieve and many of us adults struggle with it. 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 your child’s value as a being rather than a “doing”. In other words, make sure they know they are valuable for who they are, not what they do, or how many friends they have.
8. Ensure Your Child’s School is On Board
Make sure your child’s school is doing everything they can to help them find a solid and secure friendship group. This is especially important in secondary school (middle school or high school in the USA), as your child may not yet be on the school’s radar of children needing support.
Ensure the school provide alternative options to unstructured break times during the school day. These are often the toughest times for children who don’t have strong social connections. For example, they could encourage your child to join the history club if they know this is an interest. They could engineer small group social situations with individuals who may be a healthy match.
Don’t be afraid to ask.
This could be one of the best things you do for your child. It could make the difference between a happy, thriving child and an unhappy, lonely one. It is essential that staff create conditions for a safe environment in which your child can overcome their social challenges.
Make sure you aim to work as a partnership with your child’s teacher or key members of staff throughout the school year 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 and help them enjoy being in their own skin, whether you have younger children or teens.
This book 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 children not fitting in. You can search by age, and enter keywords such as “individuality”, “diversity” or “friendship”.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
To learn more tips for helping your child manage stress, join my Facebook group, Parent Tips For Positive Child Mental health UK.