This post: Most Teens Really DO Want to Fit In… Here’s Why
“Stop trying to fit in… you’re awesome JUST the way you are.”
“I don’t understand why you care so much what others think. You need to learn not to care.”
“I can’t afford those expensive athletic shoes. Why can’t you wear something cheaper… no one’s going to notice.”
These are all things I’ve said to my teens through the years.
For the most part, I fully believed it was in my kids’ best interest to teach them to stand on their own two feet, to be their own person, and not give a second thought about what others think about them. (And, truth be told, I still feel that way.)
But then… three things hit me that made me look at the situation differently (at least for now).
#1 I remembered what it felt like to be a teenager.
#2 I realized that “fitting in” and “not standing out like a sore thumb” meant two entirely different things to my kids.
#3 Being a teenager isn’t easy.
As adults, we know that our greatest strengths often arise from our differences and that our uniqueness is what allows us to make our most significant contributions to this world. But if we’re being truthful with ourselves, we’d likely admit that having the confidence to truly be yourself comes with time, age, wisdom, and life experiences… something our teenagers don’t have just yet.
Sure, some teens are confident and have no desire to fit in. (If that’s your teen, kudos to them!) But the vast majority of teens feel a burning desire to fit in. And as a teenager, I remember feeling the exact same way…
When I was in early high school, Levi’s 501 jeans were the bomb! (Remember those, parents?) Anyone who was anyone in my school was wearing them. And, oh… did I want a pair! I begged my parents to buy them for me, but I had a modest upbringing and let’s just say that if there was a K-Mart brand (I’m showing my age here) that was cheaper than the name-brand jeans I so desperately wanted, then that’s what my parents bought me.
Since my parents couldn’t afford to buy them for me, I decided to earn the money to buy them myself. I did yardwork for neighbors, babysat, and got paid at home for doing extra chores. I’ll never forget how I felt walking into school the first day I wore them. Finally… I wasn’t that kid wearing ugly K-Mart jeans anymore!
I also remember when my daughters started middle school and the Abercrombie and Fitch sherpa-lined front zip hoodies were all the rage.
“Moooom… all the kids are wearing them! Can you buy me one, pleaaaase?”
At nearly $100 bucks a pop, I had a hard time justifying paying that to accommodate my kids’ need to jump on a trend.
Until I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my oldest daughter.
“I know I told you I don’t care about fitting in and sometimes, I don’t. But most of the time, I don’t want to be different. Fitting in feels good and safe, Mom. So when I tell you I want that expensive name-brand hoodie or cool athletic shoes all the kids are wearing, it’s not because I’m entitled. I just want to feel part of the crowd and not so alone.”
For my daughter, it wasn’t so much about wanting to fit in, but more about not wanting to stand out. (I actually know some kids who love sporting the coolest and newest, clothes, gadgets, and other stuff, so I’m definitely not saying this holds true for every kid.)
The Imaginary Audience – “Everyone is Watching Me”
It doesn’t help that our teenagers go through an “Everyone is watching me” stage in their development.
When our teens’ brains develop a greater sense of reasoning, it also gives them a new sense of social awareness. Their “Imaginary Audience” or “Everyone is watching me” feeling is a psychological state in which teenagers have the mistaken impression that people are intently listening to or watching them.
(Interestingly, research has proven that, in actuality, no one is paying nearly the attention to them that our teens think they are.)
The Upside of Fitting In
Fitting in feels comfortable, safe, and familiar.
According to Psychology Today, “Familiarity is the social glue that bonds people together. We deliberately seek out the similar and the recognizable in order to feel secure. If we’re doing the same as everyone else (or wearing the same as everyone else), we must be doing it right, and finding a reflection of ourselves in those around us is a form of validation.”
Experts have also found that having a feeling of fitting in can affect our teen’s social and academic outcomes in a positive way. Kids who feel they fit in at school are more confident, likely to participate in school activities, perform better academically, and have better mental health.
Of Course, There’s a Downside, Too
Experts also believe that there could be a downside to fitting in (mainly as a result of whom our kids are hanging with and possible negative influence) that can trigger our teens to do things they otherwise would never do – skip classes, drink alcohol, try drugs, have sex, etc. In essence, the desire to fit in may serve our teens very well in some aspects of their lives and prove detrimental in other areas.
How to Help Your Teen Feel as Though They Fit In AND Still Be Their Own Person
It’s what so many teens want and need… that reassuring up-nod when they’re walking through the halls at school that says, “You’re okay.” “You’re one of us.” “You’re cool.” OR, at the very least, “You’re not a total outsider.”
I can tell you, as a mom, if fitting in (to some degree, anyway) makes my kids feel safe, more confident, and less alone, I’m all for trying to help them achieve that feeling. If that means buying them the same Axe body spray all the guys are wearing, I’ll gladly do it. If that means springing for my girls to get a modern haircut other girls have, I’ll do it. If that means buying them a name-brand t-shirt, hoodie, or athletic shoes the majority of kids are wearing, I’ll do it.
That’s not to say, however, that I won’t look for those items on sale, (remember the Abercrombie jackets my kids wanted? I found gently used ones on eBay), hit up every thrift store in town to find a deal, or make my kids earn a few bucks to help pay for it.
But there are also areas in my kids’ lives where I gently push the rebel inside of them to individuate from the rest. I don’t mind them conforming in some areas, but I encourage them to be them in other areas, including which sport they choose to play, which club they choose to join, whom they choose to date, their passions, their hobbies, which classes they take, the effort they put in at school and which college they want to attend.
In other words, sure fitting in is fine and I’ll support my kids up to a point. But in some areas of their lives, fitting in and following the crowd won’t serve them well.
In Time, Our Teenagers Will Become Their Own Person
Having raised three teenagers and seeing my kids go through the “I want to fit in stage” and emerge on the other, “I’m comfortable being me,” stage, I can tell you that it simply takes a bit of time for our kids to come into their own. It’s a process and a journey for them.
So, for every parent whose son or daughter is striving to fit in, who wants those Nike athletic shoes or Lululemon leggings just like everyone else (I mean, who can blame them – they are cool), just know in time they will find the confidence to be themselves. In the meantime, let them find comfort in fitting in (in healthy ways, of course) and gently guide them toward becoming their own person… their day will come.