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Your Teen’s Longing to Belong

One of the most powerful influences on young people today is their need to belong. Few needs go as deep, and unless this desire to fit in and to be accepted by those they consider to be their peers is met in a positive way, it can lead to problematic behavior. In this article, I’ll give moms and dads practical ways to address their teenager’s longing to belong.


It is Healthy to Want to Belong
We are all created to want community. As our culture fragments into smaller and smaller pieces and as divorce fractures family units, the need to belong is growing. Belonging can’t be bought. It can’t be forced. But it can be taught, nurtured and modeled. Parents should intentionally nurture their teen’s sense of belonging in their own family, because if they don’t, their teen will go on a quest to find belonging, and perhaps, in all the wrong places.


Unhealthy Behaviors Can Come As a Result of Wanting to Belong
Teens are connecting with lots of people through technology, social media, and online gaming, but only in a shallow way. They are encouraged to do inappropriate things to try and fit in or be part of the group. In a “selfie” world, teens are lured into sharing their personal information online. At the same time, they are not learning how to make authentic connections with others. Self-expression is pushed at all costs, even when it comes at the expense of hurting others, and especially if it helps teens maintain their position in the hierarchy of teen culture. The lack of genuine relationships motivates some teens to go to greater and greater lengths to get noticed or “liked.” Teens might drink, smoke, party, cut school, bully others, send inappropriate pictures, and more to get attention, in hopes of making a “real” connection.


What Can Parents Do?
(1) Make your home a place to belong. Create a place where your teen can come to relax, laugh, and share life together. At school, in sports, and with peers, many teens feel pressure to maintain an image or achieve a certain level of achievement. Your teen needs a place where he can stop performing, loosen up, and be accepted for being himself.

(2) Keep the communication lines open. Get to know your teen for who he really is. Go deep in conversation. As you listen, resist the urge to criticize or immediately correct your teen’s opinions, and instead take them seriously. Encourage open discussions and ask questions that help your teen to think through the ideas he’s working on.

(3) Address the inappropriate behaviors. If your teen is acting foolishly to fit in, tell your teen what you are seeing. As a family, set rules and boundaries that reflect your family’s values and protect your teen––perhaps that means limiting social media, a curfew, or more family time. Clearly communicate the consequences for breaking these rules and enforce them consistently.

(4) Look for ways to help your teen belong. The teen years can be difficult and some teens struggle to fit in. You can help your teen by finding something new. If what your teen is trying now isn’t working, then encourage your teen to find groups and activities where she can belong. Ask your teen what she likes, and help her find opportunities to connect with people who share those interests––perhaps a new sport, hobby, art, or volunteering.

(5) Keep encouraging your teen. Let you teen know that he belongs in your family and you want to have a relationship with him. When he experiences rejection and disappointments from his peers, encourage him to find a new way to try again. When your teen messes up, “be quick to forgive, quick to listen, and slow to anger.”


Encouragement for Parents
As you model healthy friendships in your own life, you are setting a healthy example for your teen about how to belong and not violate your values. Be intentional in making time to talk and when you talk to your teen, make sure you’re conversation is about deeper things or fun things, not just homework, schedules, or chores. Finally, be willing to talk about hardships in your own life. Sharing your struggles models the kind of authenticity it takes to develop real, strong, and lasting relationships.


Hey moms and dads … your teens want to belong somewhere and they will stop at nothing to get there––good or bad. Understanding your teen’s driving motivation will help you better understand the choices and actions you see teens make. Even when your teen spends way too much time on the phone, at the core of their behavior is a longing to find a place of belonging. How they act is motivated by their efforts to maintain their place in the hierarchy of the teen culture, and many times a teen will forfeit belonging to God for the sake of belonging to a group of peers. Typically, this is only a temporary distraction from the significance they find in a relationship with the Lord. In time, given the opportunity for a welcome to return, they’ll come back to the One who created them with this desire for deep relationships.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.