Feeling accepted by others is necessary to value oneself. Image courtesy of Rejnith Kishnan at freedigitalphotos.net
I am writing this article from personal experience. It’s purpose is to let mostly parents and teachers know how important it is for young people to be accepted. I hope to let them know how devastating not experiencing this during a crucial developmental time can be. It is also to empower them to help these young people to feel like they do belong once again.
From the time we are born, we are thrust into a world where we interact and relate to others. For some, on the whole, relationships are a positive experience. This is not an either-or scenario of course – we may feel accepted by our family unit, but not by our peers. We can have rewarding experiences until we are in the work-place where we may be undervalued or not feel accepted in the social fabric of the work environment. Marriages may enrich our lives as romantic attachments expand and enrich our lives. And sadly of course, divorce and separation can bring disillusionment, bitterness and cynicism.
A spectrum exists along which a relationship is judged positive or negative – rarely, is it one hundred percent good or bad. Also, some aspects may be rewarding and others challenging.
It is not to express the opinion that we should necessarily like everyone we meet, and want them as a close friend. However, there is no reason to withhold a basic level of respect, and that it is never okay to exclude someone to the point they feel isolated, ostracised and left with damaged self esteem.
When we enter adolescence, relationships with our peers can take on even more importance as the need to belong is part of our developmental stage. Sadly, when we don’t feel accepted, whether it is through exclusion, teasing or bullying, it can wound us at a very deep level.
When I entered high school, like many young people, I didn’t know my peers previously, having attended a primary school where one entered a different high school usually. I was naturally shy and quiet – however this trait was the first ‘flaw’. “The reason people hate you is because you’re so quiet” I was told. Hate – a very strong word. It made me withdraw into myself further. My mother insisted on parting my hair in the middle, something I had no say in, and having this “bum-cut” became a reason for absolute exclusion. For some reason, children can have the ability to find something so small and find almost gratification in excluding someone because of it.
I would sit next to someone, to have them move away and sit elsewhere. I would try to sit in one of the circles that teenage girls use during lunch time to chat, connect…When I would participate I was ostensibly edged out, or have someone roll their eyes. I would be picked last on every occasion during those terrible times when a person is picked one by one to be a member of a group. During speech and drama, I remember the teacher asking us to form pairs to participate in a learning exercise. The girls would run – that’s right – run as fast as they could with the object unmistakably being that I felt the urgency of how important it was not to be paired with me.
I knew I was quiet and was told that’s why I was hated initially – I tried attempts to improve myself and to talk more, I changed my hair as soon as I was out of the car.
However, somehow something indelible had been formed. Every lunch hour, for five years of a crucial developmental time, I sat alone. In every class, I sat alone. I had no connections, no acceptance.
When I reached university, I had little trouble making friends. Perhaps it was the developed maturity or the fact that the young people knew they were there to learn and it was going to be hard work, and thus it was to be a priority. However, I did develop a social group.
However, there was damage. Even today I find myself talking excessively and for the sake of talking. Because of ‘hatred’ for being quiet. Even now, I often believe people are saying negative things about me for no reason at all. Even now, I expect rejection. Even once I had social connections later in life, I experienced depression during my young adult life that still affects me today – and I believe the trauma I experienced during adolescence had something much to do with it.
I didn’t tell my mother or any of the teachers. I somehow felt it was my fate, and that little could be done. Looking back, I should have told the school counselor.
Parents and teachers:
• Please ask your kids if they’re happy in a social context at school. Look at their body language and really listen. If there are problems, perhaps parents could arrange to talk to the teacher(s). Perhaps the child can be removed from the classroom environment on some excuse for half an hour to say collect something for the teacher. Teachers could talk to the class about how this could be affecting the young person.
And monitoring should be continued.
• Even once high school is reached, teachers should still be on the lookout during the lunch breaks. This often stops after primary school. However, without it being obvious, kids who are alone for example can be taken aside. They can be encouraged to talk about what’s happening. The class can be addressed.
• The presence of the school counsellor should be made clear and that they are there to talk about anything.
• Teachers and parents can try to be aware of changes in the young person’s mood, demeanour, or academic performance.
• Rather than have children picked one by one by teams, groups can be be pre-formed.
• During parent-teacher nights, a young person’s social development should be addressed as well as their academic performance.
Feeling accepted and like one belongs is the cornerstone to developing a healthy self-esteem, feeling valued for who one is.
Positive social experiences during school, particularly secondary, help prevent psychological issues associated with low self-worth that may develop if these are absent. They provide a foundation for healthy social relationships during adulthood – when one is accepted, one learns how to give acceptance to others. The healthy self esteem that develops from feeling accepted increases the likelihood of positive experiences with communication in other areas of life– further education, work, marriage and parenting.
I cannot change what happened to me and I have to continue to work on the repercussions which still affect me. However, even if this article leads to an intervention whereby a young person or any person is helped to feel accepted and valuable, it is fully worthwhile for me.
Another thoughtful and thought provoking article, Justine.
I noted your comment about having little trouble making friends at university. I had a few friends at high school, except for a patch when I swapped schools. However, I was never 'Miss Popularity'. Then I went to university. Suddenly I had lots of friends. I was part of a group that other students wanted to be part of. We went to movies and bowling etc together, went away for a few days during the holidays, had parties and so on. Had I changed? Had my social skills improved? No. It was just that I was now surrounded by people with similar interests and values..