Why We Need to Focus on Belonging Now

It was hard to process the mental health statistics that were covered in recent weeks by The Atlantic and The New York Times. For all of us raising, teaching, guiding, and loving teens through these last two years, the data wasn’t a shock, but it was deeply saddening, especially to see how our girls and LGBTQ youth in particular are suffering. One teen intern in our office told us she didn’t understand why adults were so upset about this — for her peer group, they’ve never known it any other way. For us adults, while we felt fear in our hearts hearing this, our minds told us that our fear will not help the youth we love. We owe it to the girls to move to a place of hope and possibility.


At Girls Leadership we are going back to the foundation of our work, the fundamental place of where we know healing and transformation begin, the experience of belonging. Our team has been devouring Brene Brown’s Atlas of Heart, where she writes, “Finding a sense of belonging is essential to our well-being … Because we are a social species, we can’t survive without one another.” She goes on to break down the difference between belonging, where we can be ourselves and feel connected, and fitting in, where we have to be like others in order to connect. Most of our girls learn to fit in, not belong. 


While belonging is often talked about among peers, Brown gets at the most essential place that we most deeply yearn to belong: within our families. She begins a list of why youth often feel like they don’t belong at home:

  • They don’t feel like they meet their parents’ expectations 
  • They aren’t as cool or popular as their parents want them to be 
  • They aren’t into the things their parents are into, like sports 


To this list we would add what we’ve learned in our Girl and Grown-Up workshops, where girls tell us why they feel they don’t belong: 

  • They think they are the only one to experience a feeling or a situation 
  • They believe their mistakes or struggles aren’t shared by others in the family 
  • They feel their friendships are overly dramatic or burdened by conflict 


At Girls Leadership we will be focusing on belonging this summer in our staff retreat and professional development training for teachers and nonprofit staff. We hope that you will join us in your own reflection on the culture in your home or classroom because it is essential for us to cultivate spaces of belonging for our girls, who are taught from a very early age that their self-worth is determined in large part by their connection to others. In order to meet this social expectation, too many of our girls sacrifice themselves, their feelings, thoughts, needs, and beliefs, in order to fit in. When our girls report feeling sad and hopeless at twice the rate of our boys, when they are being admitted to emergency rooms for self-harm at more than three times the rate of boys, Brene Brown’s words emerge again: “When we sacrifice who we are, we not only feel separate from others, we feel disconnected from ourselves.” 


This is what we are doing at Girls Leadership. It’s what we’ve always done — building communities of belonging where girls can reconnect to themselves, and therefore others. 


To build families of belonging, join us for our last Girl and Grown-Up sessions of the school year. To bring this experience to your classroom or program, join Collective Belonging: SEL strategies for Racial And Gender Equity

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