This is the final part of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. To read Part 1 — which provides a look at secure attachment at the start of life — click here. Part 2 explores the core concepts of child development. Part 3 examines the importance of trust and reciprocity in the formation of secure attachment. Part 4 provides an overview of the developing brain. Part 5 explains the importance of parenting with a mindset focused on opportunity, not crisis. Part 6 explains why it’s important to be a calm parent. Part 7 provides parents guidance about how much structure and freedom to give their children. Part 8 explains why children need chores — and accountability. Part 9 provides a look at a better way to discipline than timeouts. Part 10 recommends that parents become a “secure base” for their children. Part 11 explains the importance of anger management and provides ideas about how to navigate it. 

A sense of belonging to family and community is essential for healthy social and emotional development. Children are social beings. Even in infancy, they have a strong need to fit in and to find their place in a group. Based on their social experiences, they conclude, “This is how and where I belong and how I can have significance” (Dreikers 1964).

Securely attached children have a deep sense of belonging. They feel connected to family, extended family, friends, community and culture. The experience of being part of a clan, with regular customs and traditions, gives children a feeling of security, a sense of identity, and it teaches loyalty and altruism.

When attempts to belong are met with rejection, betrayal and shame, children do not develop a sense of belonging or identification with family, community and culture.

No child likes to be ignored. To a child, being ignored means oblivion. Children develop several strategies to deal with the lack of belonging. The first is self-protection — avoiding additional hurt and rejection by defending and withdrawing. They isolate and alienate themselves from the group, denying their need to belong — a la “I don’t need anybody; you are all jerks.”

The second strategy is to desperately try and fit in by getting attention any way possible. They become superficially charming and engaging, chatter incessantly, constantly ask questions, have tantrums, whine and make annoying sounds — all attention-getting behaviors to let you know, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m just trying to get along.” They assume the role of the “bad child,” a way to be part of the family and a reflection of their negative self-image. They soon discover the side benefit of misbehavior — power and control over adults.

Biological children have a natural sense of belonging to their families — sharing similar appearance, genes, temperament and identity. Foster and adopted children do not share this family inheritance and often feel isolated and alone. “I’m different,” they often tell themselves. “I don’t feel like a member of the group (Schofield & Week 2005).” As a healing parent, you discourage your child’s misguided attempts to connect and encourage positive ways of belonging.

Tips to increase belonging

Don’t allow isolation. Start with one-on-one quality time with your child. As she feels more comfortable and trusting, slowly encourage family involvement.

Respect a child’s background. Be nonjudgmental, understanding and respectful about your child’s history and background (for example, cultural and ethnic roots, biological parents and siblings). Give the message, “You can be true to your past and still connect with us.” Be sensitive to lost rituals from previous families or foster placements.

Focus on the positive. Acknowledge your child’s unique talents and strengths. Emphasize his positive contributions to the family. Notice the title things he does to belong.

Offer encouragement. Your child needs encouragement to combat depression, hopelessness and lack of self-confidence. Express your confidence in his ability to succeed.

Take pleasure. Take pleasure in your child’s accomplishments, regardless of how small. Let your child know you enjoy her company. Develop common interests. Find a way to have fun together.

Laugh together. Humor is a great door opener to help your child feel a part of your family. The ability to laugh at yourself, life or a silly joke helps us feel, think and do better. Laughter also reduces stress, smooths conflicts and builds relationships. Parents don’t realize their power they have to influence their children. Children tend to mimic the moods of those around them. A sad face evokes sadness; a smile induces more smiles. Laughter is a powerful social signal that conveys involvement and approval. Research has shown the simple act of smiling causes your brain to release chemicals that make you feel good (Niven 2000). Plus, laughter is infectious!