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Child Development

How Feeling That We Belong Promotes Resiliency

From childhood through adulthood, we have an innate need to belong.

Key points

  • A sense of belonging is essential to resiliency and wellness.
  • Children’s resiliency can be supported by a sense of belonging with at least one stable, committed adult.
  • In an isolating world, finding connection and belonging is just as important in adulthood.
Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash
A group of seagulls flying over the beach.
Source: Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash

Resilient individuals feel a deep sense of belonging, trust, and security. They feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and that what they do matters. Belonging is one of the most important traits of resiliency, and it is possible to forge connections at any age.

Evolutionary psychology has summarized a need to belong and to bond to another person as the core of our human survival. When a new mother breastfeeds her baby, the distance from the crook of her arm that cradles the baby’s head to her eyes is the exact visual distance a baby can see. When feeding, all the baby can see is their mother’s face, which creates a bond. Then, as mom breastfeeds, oxytocin is released in her bloodstream: the bonding hormone.

Our greatest chance of surviving is when we are accepted by another and we wholeheartedly believe we are part of our community. For some, community could be our family system. For others, it may be a self-generated group of friends or a professional identity. To create a sense of belonging, we need to feel acknowledged, seen, and loved by at least one other person. We need to be held in someone else’s heart and mind when we are apart. Research from the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University suggests the single most common factor for children who are resilient is that they have at least one stable and committed person in their life. This could be a parent, caregiver, or another adult.

Children, even teens, crave a sense of belonging. They have an instinct to find a safe home team where their physical and psychological needs are met. While teens crave belonging with their peers, peer relationships are vulnerable and unpredictable. And so, they need a safe and predictable home team.

In their book Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté suggest parents and caregivers can give their children what peers cannot: a relationship based on unconditional love, not one based on pleasing the other. They go on to write “the more children are attached to caring adults, the more they are able to interact with peers without being overwhelmed by the vulnerability involved.” By providing our children with a safe place to come home to, adults help boost children’s resiliency in peer relationships and reinforce seeking help.

Here are some ways to cultivate and encourage belonging with our children:

  • Connect then correct: We can provide safety, especially when children make mistakes, by meeting them first with compassion and care. This is not to suggest that actions don’t have consequences. Rather, instead of meeting mistakes with correction, consequences, or lectures, we connect first. We recognize our kids are humans who make mistakes and we offer compassion.
  • Identify individual value: Kids want to see their individual value and contribution within the family system. They want to know they have a seat and a voice at the table and that their voice is heard.
  • Lunchbox affirmations: Everyone deserves a little love note once in a while. Small notes in a lunchbox or other space are reminders that children are cared for and thought about.

The intense desire to belong doesn’t end at adulthood. Adults still crave being seen, heard, and included as part of a group. However, at no point in history have we been so connected yet so isolated and lonely. Connection has become competitive. Likes, followers, and retweets have become new markers of popularity.

Going at life alone is not the answer to achieving wellness and resiliency. The answer to finding our place in the world an being seen for who we are.

Dan Buettner, founder of the Blue Zone research initiative, discovered five areas of the world (Blue Zones) where a higher percentage of people live to be 100 years or older. Of the nine common denominators contributing to health and longevity, Buettner identified two related to belonging: being part of a social circle and connection to a faith-based group. These findings are supported in other research as well, including a literature review of aging and resilience by Fontes and Neri (2015) who conclude social resources are variables impacting resilience and adaptation in the elderly.

Our need to belong is significant. We are not meant to go through life alone. A place of belonging is where you will find psychological safety. It is important to find your home team, whatever that might look like. For some, it could be family, extended family, neighbours, or members of a group, club, or team.

An effective approach to finding connection is to seek people who share the same values and interests, such as ethnic, faith-based, athletic, artistic, or professional groups. This involves knowing and connecting with oneself, too, to determine one's own values and interests. We can relearn and reconnect with who we are. Here are some questions for exploration:

  • What makes me feel competent?
  • What feelings do I not like feeling?
  • What feelings do I want to feel more?
  • What is my personal goal and mission statement for this year?
  • Where do I find my joy? Peace? Calm? Inspiration?

Once we have connected with ourselves, we can expand to our social circle and ask the following:

  • What is working?
  • What is not working?
  • Who is in my corner?
  • With whom am I safe?
  • Where am I truly seen?

The above questions can provide some direction toward the people who foster our sense of belonging. Knowing who we are, where we belong, and to whom we are bonded is vital for resiliency and wellness. These are the people who cultivate a stable resting place for us when we need it most.

References

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2020, August 17). Resilience. Retrieved from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/

Buettner, D. (2005, November). The secrets of long life. National Geographic. Scanned pages available at: https://www.bluezones.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Nat_Geo_LongevityF…

Fontes, A. P., & Neri, A. L. (2015). Resilience in aging: Literature review. Ciencia & saude coletiva, 20, 1475-1495.

Gerhardt, S. (2014). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. Routledge.

Maté, G., and Neufeld, G. (2013). Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. Random House.

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