5 Things Your Child Needs to Know About Friendship & Belonging

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Belonging is important to everyone no matter their age. When resting, our brains enter a default network which actually mimics the same neural cognitive system seen when we engage in social interaction. Even babies are biologically designed to seek out human connection and infants as young as 2 weeks old have been shown to exhibit the same neural network described above.

Martin Seligman, the 'father of positive psychology,' developed a popular theory of wellbeing - PERMA - that outlined the 5 key elements of wellbeing; Positive emotions, Engagement, Meaning, Relationships & Accomplishments. This holds true for all ages and attachment theory shows that childhood relationships, especially those between a child and their peer group and teacher, are formative of their behaviour as an adult.

So what do children need to know?

1. Having Friends is Different to Being Popular

Typically it is in early adolescence (aged 11-14) that young people start to become aware of popularity and who it is in their peer group (usually in their class) who determines what and who matters.

However, over my 15 years experience as a primary school teacher, I can honestly say that even very young children are now aware of this.

They know who is 'cool' and during my research for my MSc, the primary school children I interviewed even used the term 'popular' to describe the people in their class who everybody wanted to be like, or be friends with. These children were between the ages of five and 11 - far younger than expected to be concerned about this kind of social status.

Being popular is typically about being accepted or admired by a lot of people. The problem is that this sometimes comes at the cost of personal values and integrity and it also puts pressure on the 'popular kids' to maintain their popularity. As a result, even great kids will sometimes make poor decisions in order to remain popular, and should that popularity decline, some experience serious mental upset due to their loss of identity.

The other thing about being 'popular', is that it doesn't always mean you have friends. Popularity gives a false impression of having many friends, when actually sometimes popular children feel lonely because they don't have a genuine personal connection within their social group.

Instead of worrying about whether they are popular or not, we need to guide children towards authenticity. Authenticity is the crucial difference between friendship and popularity.

With friends, we can be ourselves. When children (or adults for that matter) are trying to be popular, they will be what they think is required. Popularity is about putting on a mask to fit in.

True friendship involves taking off your mask and being yourself. This is what builds real connections with other people and is the root of a genuine friendship.

Having that one person who you can talk to, who listens to you, who genuinely cares about your wellbeing and who accepts you, flaws and all, and to whom you can offer the same in return, is far more valuable than just being 'popular'.

2. What You Feel is Not Always What is True

We all have those annoying automatic negative thoughts that pop into our heads and make us doubt ourselves and our relationships. You know, "What did she mean by that?" "What if he thought I was being rude or mean?" "Does that mean they don't like me?"

These thoughts drive our emotions and can lead to feelings of fear, loneliness and sadness. But, often these thoughts are based on inaccurate information. As adults we struggle with this, and children are far less experienced in interpreting these thoughts and emotions and can quickly feel overwhelmed or upset by the strength of their feelings.

I used to see this exhibited as tummy aches or sore throats in the children in my class, and the truth is that feelings of social isolation do trigger a similar neurological pain response to physical pain. We can all understand that feeling of knots in your tummy or a lump in your throat when experiencing emotional upset.

You can help your child by becoming their 'emotion coach'. Help them to understand and discuss their emotions by talking sympathetically and constructively about how to regulate negative feelings and navigate friendship issues.

Patiently helping them to identify and name their emotions and then unpick what triggered them is a good start. From there, you can encourage them to check for any evidence that what they think is true and begin to overcome their negative thoughts. 'Listening to My Body', 'Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too)' and Usborne's '