In Ron Howard’s classic movie Parenthood, main character Gil Buckman finds himself in a seemingly constant battle to help his kids adjust to the challenges of life. He especially fears for his eldest son, Kevin, who exhibits signs of emotional distress and anxiety. Gil sees how Kevin’s anxiousness impairs his ability to connect with his teammates. For Gil, it’s not just that Kevin may need therapy, it’s the fact that his son might not “fit in” with his peers that truly concerns him.
Like many movies—with Michael-Bay-style flicks being a notable exception—the strength of Parenthood is its very apt portrayal of the difficulty of a common experience, which, in this case, is parenting. Parents empathize with Gil because we know his worries aren’t unique: we all want our children to develop into socially well-adjusted young men and women. As adults, we know that one of the most important qualities for our social and professional lives is our ability to read social norms and act accordingly, what Forbes magazine calls “cultural fit”. Simply put, we want our kids to fit in, and we also know that middle and high school can be difficult places to do so. But what can—or should—we do when our teenager comes home and tells us that they aren’t fitting in?
Is it a choice?
One of the first things to do is find out if your teenager is not fitting in by choice. According to Lisa Van Der Merwe, a licensed psychotherapist and social worker, some teens don’t feel the need to go with the crowd: “Sometimes their peers reject them, but more often than not they too sense that they are somehow different and therefore choose to not engage with the crowd.” In these cases, Van Der Merwe suggests helping the teenager cultivate the passions that make him or her unique, avoiding the impulse to “push” too hard.
Provide opportunities for social interactions
Dr. Michele Borba, a best-selling author on childhood development, encourages parents to “look for opportunities for your child to meet kids anywhere or elsewhere.” These activities should match your teenager’s interests and help him or her meet like-minded peers. From religious groups and athletic teams to community service organizations and summer camps, activities and clubs offer teens a common foundation that can kick-start positive and healthy relationships.
Reach out to adults who know your teen
Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., identifies a number of qualities in teenage personalities that can be off-putting: “trying (unsuccessfully) to be funny…ignoring “stop” signals…being a poor sport…bragging.” In all likelihood, you may not see these qualities in your teen, since they may only be exhibited around their peers. Consider reaching out to teachers, coaches, advisors, or any other adult that sees your teen interacting with peers. If it turns out your teen is displaying negative behaviors, you can begin to address those at home.
Middle and high school can be like reality shows: shifting alliances, gossip, and hurt feelings are all too common. One of the most important elements of your teen’s experience is their home life, which should act as a foundation that is attentive and supportive. You cannot fix all of your teen’s problems, social or otherwise—but that is actually a good thing. This crucible of life is an important time for your teen to develop resilience and perseverance as well as positive social experiences. Nevertheless, you can help open doors for your teen that allow them to pursue their passions alongside like-minded individuals.