Belonging and Significance

Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler.  Alfred Adler was one of the first social psychologists, and he found that all human beings are pulled towards a sense of belonging and significance.  Humans are “hard wired” to move in this direction.  But what is belonging and significance?  And why is it, that if this is the goal of our kids behavior, they do things that make us want to push them away?  The idea of belonging and significance has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to share what my understanding is…

Let’s start with “belonging.”  When we talk about a sense of belonging, what we really are discussing is the idea of connection, or how we fit into a group, whether it’s the family, the classroom, or the community.  How do we fit?  Do we fit?  Did we fit for a while, feel as though we belonged there, and then did life circumstance threaten or change our sense of connection?  When our sense of connection, of belonging, is lost or altered in a negative way (i.e. we start to feel insecure) we immediately do what needs to be done to re-connect.

What about “significance?”  A sense of significance comes from how we contribute to the whole.  We have a strong sense of significance when we know that what we do, and who we are matters.  People who believe that they contribute to society in meaningful, cooperative ways tend to be happier people, they know that what they do makes a difference.  The same is true for children.  When we set up our homes and classrooms in a way that provides lots of opportunities to contribute, problem-solve, and cooperate, we are training the next generation to embrace and celebrate their sense of significance.

As I mentioned above, kids don’t come with skills to know how to get back to belonging and significance when they are feeling discouraged.  They can get mixed up.  How we reacted to their mistaken attempts is really important.  Here are a few ways kids make mistaken attempts to reestablish their sense of belonging and significance:

·      A child who is feeling dethroned by the arrival of a new sibling is going to “regress” to try and explore how she now fits into the family.  A parent who sends that young child to lots of time-out is sending a message to that child that she doesn’t belong and that she better get more creative with her “regression.”   Spend special time with this child, remind her of all the things she can do, pull her to you, rather than away, when she is misbehaving.

·      A child who is feeling hurt, with no sense of belonging, is going to hurt others in an attempt to, at least, not feel alone in their pain.  A parent or teacher who punishes that child, instead of recognizing that they are hurting and working on relationship, will only deepen that child’ sense of hurt and discouragement.  Validate their feelings, work on agreements, and give them a chance to use their voice when they are hurting.

·      A child who believes that the only way they belong is to be the boss or in control is going to engage parents and teachers in a never ending power struggle.  Adults mistakenly engage in these (hence the “struggle”) rather than recognizing that this child is requesting more control and power over their life.  Offer lots of choices throughout the day, seek out their input when appropriate, hand over as much power and control as you can.

·    A child who is constantly criticized or made to feel inferior to others will begin to withdraw and stop trying, in an effort not to be noticed.  They aren’t perfect, they don’t belong, so it’s safer to pull away.  It is frustrating for adults because they see the potential in this child, or perhaps they are willing to give up too.  Small steps and encouragement will bring that child back to a place of contribution and belonging.

Sometimes, especially with children, this movement towards belonging and significance can end up being really challenging for adults.  Kids are really new at this and make all sorts of mistakes when trying to get back to a place where their sense of belonging and significance is restored.  It is our job to guide them in the process, stay open and calm, teach them and be available while they navigate these murky waters…  This can be quite tricky when we are feeling emotionally triggered by their behavior - perfection is not the goal, go forward with awareness and make small changes.  You are sure to see some powerful results.