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You may be familiar with the Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs. First is basic survival — food, air, sleep, etc. Second is safety; we all strive to be safe and sound in a world that we often experience as relatively predictable. Next is belonging; once we have achieved a sense of safety, we then seek to belong.

The need to belong is universal. We are a social species and through the past 200,000 or so years we have relied on our “tribes” to protect us and provide love and connection. We simply need to be part of a group.

Students report that the experience of not belonging is excruciatingly painful. In fact, the pain of loneliness is comparable to that of physical pain. It’s no wonder that we strive to be connected. The lack of belonging can be devastating. What emotions and thoughts tend to show up when adolescents experience non-belonging?

Loneliness: “I’m all alone”

Shame: “there must be something wrong with me”

Sadness: “no one loves me, I must be unlovable, no one will ever love me”

Anxiety: “will the next person I meet reject me?”

There are several problematic responses we see when young people think they do not belong.

  • Rejecting others. The best defense is a good offense, right?
  • Joining those who will accept us. Gangs, cults, groups engaged in drugs or other dangerous behaviors, etc.
  • Trying hard to belong. Giving up values and beliefs in the service of connection
  • Opting out. Giving up and resigning to isolation
  • Acting out. Did you know that school shooters usually have a history of rejection and lack a sense of belonging?

The fact is we all belong! We are all part of the human family. How tragic that this pain is so pervasive and destructive. Let’s do something about it.

We are youth workers, parents, teachers and coaches and we are charged with creating a climate of inclusivity. Model acceptance and connection. Be particularly alert to how you respond when the kids you care about fall short. Behaviors can be corrected; people are perfect the way they are. Reach out to those who appear isolated, all it takes is one meaningful connection to offset this damaging experience. Be the meaningful connection!


~Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C