Why It’s So Important to Nurture Your Teen’s Sense of Belonging

If teens don’t feel a sense of belonging at home, they’ll seek it somewhere else, regardless of the cost

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: Why It’s So Important to Nurture Your Teen’s Sense of Belonging

Co-Written by: Marybeth Bock & Nancy Reynolds

When I think back on my own teen years, it’s all a colorful, lively blur of memories with my friends – places we hung out, sleepovers we had at each other’s houses, dances we attended, football games we cheered at, and the endless hours we spent talking about boys.

For me, hanging with and feeling connected to my friends meant everything to me. That’s not to say that schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and my family didn’t hold importance in my life, but nearly everything else paled in comparison to the feeling of being included and that sense of belonging that came from being accepted and appreciated by “my tribe.”

Fast forward a few years and now, when I look at my own kids, I can see how important that same feeling is for them.

When they choose their friends over me or ditch quality family time in exchange for an evening with friends, I often have to remind myself that it’s not about me, it’s about them and their need for camaraderie and the sisterhood and brotherhood that fills their “belonging bucket” to the brim.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through parenting my own kids, fostering a sense of belonging with our kids could quite possibly be the greatest gift we can offer them. And, that sense of belonging always starts at home…

Why It’s So Important to Nurture Your Teen’s Sense of Belonging


A Sense of Belonging Starts at Home

Deep down inside, every parent wants their child to be happy and to find their place in a good group of kids. What worries us is when our kids’ desire to belong is so strong and desperate that they compromise who they are – their values, morals, or beliefs – all at the expense of being accepted and fitting in.

According to Mark Gregston of Parenting Today’s Teens, “A teen’s drive to belong will never be so severe if they feel as though they completely belong in their own family and find safety and comfort in their own home.” In fact, he says, “You need to nurture your teen’s sense of belonging at home, otherwise, your kids will look for it in all the wrong places, regardless of the cost.”

A recent study published by Pediatrics confirmed this notion revealing that youth who feel strong family and school connectedness are 66 percent less likely to experience long-term health risks into adulthood including mental health, violence, sexual behavior, and substance abuse.

In other words, by wrapping our kids in a warm blanket of unconditional love, acceptance, and encouragement, we’ll be giving them the confidence and the feeling of belonging they need and crave.

Other things we do like really listening and being respectful of their opinions and views, celebrating their successes (no matter how small), including them in major family events, decisions, and responsibilities, giving them age-appropriate freedom to figure out a few things on their own and making quality time together a priority, also empowers our kids and makes them feel a true part of the family rather than an outsider who simply eats and sleeps under the same roof as his/her parents and siblings.

Still, as much as we strive to give our kids the foundation of a strong family who loves and cherishes them, chances are they’ll still seek outside acceptance and belonging from their friends.

Whether it’s kids they’ve known since elementary school, kids they meet in after-school clubs or sports, or kids they connect with in class, we need to come to terms with the fact that our kids are hardwired to need acceptance – not just from us, but from kids their own age.

Friends Matter (Maybe More Than Us)

As much as we hate to admit it, quite often our sphere of influence with our kids diminishes greatly when they become teenagers.

Their friends take center stage and have the most sway on our kid’s day-to-day behavior and attitudes as it relates to school, how they spend their free time, their choice of clothing, the music they listen to, and even their views on dating and relationships.

Teenagers get something from their friends that they can never get at home:

  • Being accepted and valued by people other than family
  • The ability to practice their social skills and experience friendships and early romantic relationships
  • A safe place to talk about life as a teenager, puberty, relationships, the pressures of life and school, and family issues
  • A sense of security and solidarity knowing they’re part of a group that cares about them and has their back
  • A social group where they can experience new adventures and be exposed to varying ideas, cultures, and beliefs

Even though parents sometimes view their kid’s outside connections as a threat and quite possibly a loss of control and influence, according to Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard, co-authors of “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development,” parents shouldn’t.

Parents remain central during their teen’s adolescence. “Kids depend on their parents (families) for affection, identification, values, and decision-making skills. They also learn social-emotional skills from their parents (or other caring adults), so they can apply these skills within their peer network.”

Knowing that teens get a sense of “who they are” from their friends, what if your teen is struggling to find that sense of belonging? What can you do to help your teen foster healthy social connections?

Nurture your teen’s sense of belonging: Here are things you can do to help your teen feel like they belong.

1. Understand the Difference Between Belonging and Fitting In

Let’s face it, every teen wants to feel like they belong. (Seriously, it’s literally hardwired into their human DNA). But sometimes, in our kid’s attempt to create a sense of belonging, they fail to recognize the difference between creating true relationships where they feel they belong and fitting in.

You see, when they belong, our kids will feel accepted for their true authentic selves. They’ll be able to share the wonderful quirks about themselves that make them… well, them, including the fact that they leave the light on when they sleep because they’re afraid of ghosts or how they secretly love to sing at the top of their lungs in the shower. Fitting in, however, lacks this acceptance. Fitting in quite often involves changing who they are to fit into a situation or a group of people they’re with.

2. Focus on Building Authentic Relationships

Most teenagers have plenty of acquaintances, but true friendships aren’t quite that easy to come by. Talk to your teen about steering clear of fake friends and instead surrounding themselves with authentic people – kids who are comfortable in their own skin and who inadvertently allow your teen to do the same.

Kids who will stand up for them, who won’t judge them, and who won’t pressure them into doing things they’re not comfortable with. Even if they have one or two friends that they can feel “at home” with can give them the sense of belonging they yearn for.

3. Join a Club, Sport, or Activity

It’s easy for teens to bond with others when they genuinely care about the same things. Let’s face it – most kids aren’t creating deep and lasting bonds over geometry. But if your teen can join an activity or sport or find (or even create) a club that taps into their passion for musical theater, art, politics, or cultural pride, for instance, they are much more likely to develop a sense of belonging with others in the group.

4. Get Involved in a Meaningful Community Project

Whether they get involved in Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, the Humane Society, or a local senior citizen’s home, your teen will be engaging and volunteering with people of all ages, from all walks of life. Finding a sense of belonging doesn’t necessarily have to come from kids their own age, they can find it by involving themselves in service groups run by people who hold the same passion for giving back to the community.

5. A Few Good Friends Are Okay

Social media has wrongly convinced our kids that if they’re not posting pictures with a large group of friends on a Saturday night, they must not be popular and they definitely don’t “belong.” But being surrounded by others or being popular doesn’t necessarily equate to belonging.

Don’t worry if your teen only has a few good friends (or even one or two). A satisfying social life and that amazing feeling that they’re part of something special isn’t a numbers game. In fact, it’s easier to create long-lasting special bonds with a couple of friends versus ten friends.


Resources: The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, 2009. Clea McNeely, MA, DrPH, and Jayne Blanchard; Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health  (2) Teen Need to Belong, Parenting Today’s Teens with Mark Gregston Podcast

About Marybeth Bock:

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


If you enjoyed “Why You Need to Nurture Your Teen’s Sense of Belonging,” you might also enjoy reading:

What Teenagers Really Need From Their Parents

Shoulder to Shoulder Parenting: Why It’s the Best Way to Parent Teenagers

4 Things Teenagers Need Every Single Day

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