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.
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 Job When Your Child is Feeling Different: Use the Teaching, Coaching and Limit-Setting Roles
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 aquired. 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 responsiblities 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.
Another valuable lesson is to function appropriately no matter how you feel. 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
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.
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 you think he's a freak, too. So, it's very important when kids share their feelings of being different for you to remain calm. 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.
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.'" Or, "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.
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."
"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.