When Your Child Says, “I Don’t Fit In”
Every child feels like they don’t fit in at some point. Even adults feel that way occasionally: we all experience being “alone in a room full of people.” With kids, the need to be part of a group is instinctual; it’s survival. They want to fit in and be like everyone else because it gives them a sense of safety and security.
So when your child tells you they don’t fit in, they’re also saying, “I don’t feel safe.” The anxiety comes from thoughts of, “I’m different; I’m vulnerable.” And sadly, other children tend to focus on kids who are different and can be very cruel.
Your child is going to make the problem huge, so you have to be the one to say, “Yeah, that’s tough,” and then bring it down to its right size.
When your child is getting picked on for being different, know that it’s excruciatingly painful for him or her. But you also need to realize as a parent that you can’t fix it; there’s nothing that you can say or do that’s going to take that pain away—so stop looking for the magic answer.
Instead, start working with your child to give them the skills they need to solve the problem they’re facing right now.
“But What If My Child Really Doesn’t Fit in?”
When your child doesn’t fit in with his peer group for some emotional, behavioral or physical reason, I think you have to find an organized way as a parent to work with them step by step, to show them how to manage their daily lives.
One thing to consider is that many learning disabilities often don’t manifest themselves until your child starts school, although the issues have been there since birth. So when a child gets to kindergarten or first grade, you might see that he has trouble reading, doing math or processing social situations. In reality, that disability has been there all along—it’s just surfacing in a different, more concrete way.
By the time that child has been diagnosed, he’s probably already developed a very cautious way of looking at the world; he already feels different and is working hard to hide it. The learning disability might not be discovered until years later, but it has always affected that child.
Look at it this way: if you have a learning disability that causes you to get letters or numbers backwards, what do you think it’s going to do to your understanding of relationships, friendships, trust, or responsibility? Do you think you’re going to get all those things straight, and it’s just the numbers that are backwards? This is a much more complex problem than people think.
So if you tell a child with special needs who feels like he doesn’t fit in, “C’mon, you’re just like the other kids. Don’t let it bother you,” that’s not really a helpful answer. Instead, it’s a message to your child that they have control over whether or not they have a disability, or the power to decide how it affects them. He’s going to walk away feeling like there’s something wrong with him, and he’s going to say to himself, “Nobody understands me, I really am different.” While kids may often learn how to manage the effects their learning disabilities have upon them, it usually takes a lot of work and effort on everybody’s part—parents, teachers and the kids themselves—to make that happen.
Personally, I felt different as kid. I was adopted, I had learning and behavioral disabilities, I felt like I didn’t fit in, and kids teased me. But I learned over time how to be comfortable inside my own skin. It was more difficult back then because parents did not have the skills and education they have today. They didn’t understand the importance of teaching kids how to solve problems. And they didn’t know how to coach their kids to build on their skill base. Simply put, in those days, parents didn’t have the resources to teach their children not be victims, regardless of their vulnerabilities.
Your Role: Teacher, Coach, and Limit-Setter
So what is your role as a parent in this situation? One job is to balance reassurance with coaching. When talking to your child, remind them that a lot of other kids have gone through the same thing and made it through okay. Give them some perspective on the issue, the knowledge that this is not the end of the world. Also, in your own mind, don’t let it be the end of the world.
This is the time to be a coach and teacher to your child. Coaches reinforce and remind kids of skills that have already been acquired. Teachers help kids identify and develop the skills they need to solve an individual problem. I think being a teacher is one of the most precious things we are to kids. It’s a powerful thing to be able to help your child identify and solve his or her problems, because you’re giving them a tool that will aid them the rest of their lives.
You also need to continue setting limits even if your child is feeling bad or down. Let them know you still expect them to carry out their responsibilities and complete their tasks. If they’re upset after school, just say, “Well, take a few minutes and then let’s get started with homework.” They can feel bad for a certain amount of time, but then they have to start their homework or clean their room. The key is, don’t let them be crippled by feeling bad, and don’t treat them like they’re a cripple.
Coach your child to function appropriately no matter how he feels. Yes, it’s important to feel the feelings, but it’s also important to do something positive about them. Here’s the truth: we all have to do what we have to do no matter how we feel.
The limit-setting function of a parent is very important during these times. You can be loving and concerned, but it’s up to you to keep this problem in perspective. Your child is going to make the problem huge, so you have to be the one to say, “Yeah, that’s tough,” and then bring it down to its right size.
And its right size is, “It really hurts when this happens, but it happens. And even when we’re feeling this way, we still have to do our homework. We still have to talk nicely to our little brother. We still have to clean our room, we still have to eat dinner.” That way, your child is still being responsible and still keeping up with the tasks in his or her life.
7 Tips to Help Your Child
1. Don’t Overreact
When your child goes to school and gets picked on, you feel powerless as a parent. It frightens you, it makes you angry, but really, it’s a sense of powerlessness that you’re experiencing. You do everything you can to protect yourself in life, but when your child goes to school and gets hurt, you’re vulnerable too.
The feeling of powerlessness is a personal feeling and it’s a devastating one. Many parents lose their objectivity when their child tells them they’re being excluded, picked on or bullied. The technique for the parent here is to go take five minutes and calm down, talk it through with others if you can, work it out, but don’t overreact in front of your child.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s very normal for parents to feel powerless and it’s very difficult for them not to overreact to that feeling. But understand this: when you feel powerless, your first response is not always the best response. In fact, there are generally two kinds of reactions when people feel powerless: one is stick their head in the sand, and the other is to strike out. Know that neither one is helpful to a kid.
2. Let Your Child Talk About It and Give Reassurance
When their child tries to talk to them about not fitting in or being picked on, parents may unconsciously become less warm or receptive. Or they may give other signals, verbal or non-verbal, that say they’re uncomfortable talking about it. They may try to minimize the problem, and make it seem like it’s “not that big of a deal.”
But the danger here is that your child gets the message, “They don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Try to remain open to hearing what they have to say, and be calm and soothing in your response. Let your child talk it out—don’t try to make the problem seem like it’s not important, because in the child’s life, it’s huge.
Yes, all kids go through this. But maybe all kids don’t go through what your kid is going through. Remember that when a child tells you something, that’s his way of asking for help. So parents really have to work on being comforting and accepting. They have to give their child the tools he needs to learn social skills, to learn how to read social situations. You can start by saying:
“What you’re going through happens to kids sometimes, and I can get you some help with that.”
Both are important for your child to know. Telling them that many children have experienced this feeling or situation “right sizes” the problem, and letting them know that you can help them offers them some tangible hope.
Help may come in the form of books or online resources like Empowering Parents. It may come from the school, as a result of your discussions with teachers or administrators, or from counseling or workbooks your child can do. Regardless, let your child know that help is out there, and that they don’t have to go it alone.
If you freak out and start to panic about your child not fitting in, he’s going to think that you think he’s a freak, too. So, it’s very important to remain calm when kids share their feelings of being different.
Often it’s very comforting for kids to hear things like, “That happened to me when I was a kid, and I know how much it hurts.” They feel comforted when you identify with their problem and empathize with them. Another way of doing that is to say, “That must feel awful for you.” That’s framing it for them and empathizing with them at the same time.
3. Affirm What You’ve Heard
Affirm what’s going on in your child’s life and acknowledge that it’s hard for them. You can say things like:
“It must be really tough to feel like you don’t fit in.”
And then you can move to the offer of help:
“I’m going to get us some help with that. I bet you’re not the only kid that doesn’t feel like he fits in. I bet there are books out there and stuff we can find online that will help us.”
You’re showing positive regard to your child, being comforting and being helpful.
4. “Try to Find One Friend First”
It’s a lot easier to start a relationship with one person than trying to fit into the group. When you talk with your child, tell them to deal with other kids one at a time. You can say:
“How about if you start with trying to find one friend first? Is there anyone at school who you might like to hang out with?”
Suggest people they might not have thought about before:
“What about the kid sitting next to you? Or the kid sitting on the other side of you? Try talking to one of them, maybe you’ll get a better response.”
In addition, see if your child can find friends outside of school, in other circles, or places where they might meet other kids with the same interests. Your child can join things like the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, where the uniform basically levels the playing field: everybody in the room has the same shirt on, so kids stand out less in that crowd.
5. Teach Them How to Read Social Situations
Another skill to teach kids is how to read social situations. So if there’s a group of kids that doesn’t like your child or picks on him, your child needs to learn how to stay away from them. He needs to seek out kids who he gets along with: maybe there are some shy kids he can befriend or other kids having a hard time. For some children, reading social situations is more difficult than for others. But there are tools that can help parents work with their kids that will teach them how to read expressions and pick up on social cues.
Related content: Why Misreading Social Cues Leads to Acting Out Behavior
6. The Power of Postive Self-Talk
Positive self-talk doesn’t mean that you’re saying, “I’m wonderful and everything’s all right, hooray!” That’s not positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is reasoning, soothing self-talk that helps you stay calm and keep your perspective.
Kids get anxious when they’re feeling left out or being picked on. Their adrenaline starts to pump, they think less clearly, and they panic. Positive, soothing self-talk is meant to bring them back down. In other words, it calms down their internal physical system, and accordingly, their thoughts.
Here’s how it breaks down. First, help your child identify what’s going on. Perhaps another kid at school is picking on your daughter because she doesn’t like the way she dresses. You can say:
“It’s not your problem that Ashley doesn’t like your clothes. It’s her problem. It makes you feel bad, but you’re okay. In fact, you’re great just the way you are, and I love you.”
Try that kind of soothing, calming talk as a parent. And then suggest to your child:
“How about saying that to yourself next time it happens? Can you do that? ‘This is not my problem, it’s her problem.’”
“I’m doing the best I can. If they don’t like me, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not the only kid being teased around here.”
You can also role play that conversation with younger kids to help coach them through it.
7. Let Them Know It’s OK to Ask for Help
Another skill parents can teach kids is how to ask for help. Here’s a scenario: your child comes home upset because some kids were laughing at him again in homeroom. So you say:
“Well, maybe you could ask your teacher to move you.”
And if the next day your child says, “I did ask her, and she wouldn’t.” Say:
“All right then, you did exactly the right thing. Now, let me talk to the teacher, I’ll see if I can be helpful.”
Remember, one of the best things you can ever ask your child is:
“What would be helpful for you right now?”
And then respect their need for space. Above all, let them know that it’s always okay to ask for help.
If Your Child is Being Bullied, Work with the School Aggressively
A word about bullying: if your child is being bullied, you need to be very proactive with teachers and the school. Have the school explain what they will do to protect your child from being a target of bullying. Physical and emotional safety is the school’s responsibility while that child is in their care. If your child is being excluded, let the teacher know you want them pulled into activities.
When parents came to my office with this problem, I’d say, “If your child is being bullied, call the teacher first. If they don’t cooperate with you, then call the principal. If they’re not responsive, call the superintendent. And let the superintendent tell the principal there’s a problem. Because once the principal hears it from the superintendent, he’s more likely to take action to solve the problem in an appropriate way. The principal might feel vulnerable that he didn’t know about it, and that will prompt him to further action.”
Related content: My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do?
“Don’t Compare Your Insides to Other People’s Outsides”
There’s a saying I really like: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” One of the big, big mistakes we make in assessing ourselves is that we constantly compare our insides to other people’s outsides.
Inside we may be feeling frantic, or worried, or any number of things. And on the outside, other people look like they’ve got it all together. The end result is that when you compare your insides to other people’s outsides, you come up short—and that’s especially true if you’re a kid.
Children and teens compare how they feel to the way other people look all the time. So if your child is feeling anxious and afraid and all the other kids look like they’re having a good time, your child is going to feel out of place and different. And meanwhile, all those other kids feel anxious and uptight, too, and when they look at your child, they think he looks like he’s okay. So the key is to teach your child not to compare himself to others, but to really to do what he’s comfortable with inside.