The teenage years are ripe for rejection: fashion trends change quicker than the wind, especially accelerated by social media. Some kids are more sensitive to rejection than others. The thought of not fitting in can feel like a more dangerous threat than anything else.
Often, it happens on a subconscious level — they’re not even aware of their own anxiety.
Kids who feel like they don’t fit in rarely do well when it comes to wise decision-making. In fact, perceived peer rejection is an understood risk factor for substance use.
Peer acceptance can be a tricky dynamic for parents to understand and influence. Their teenage experiences have an expiration date for relevance, at least as far as their kids are concerned.
Also, hindsight can make it seem like peer acceptance or rejection is inconsequential in the scheme of things when, in fact, it’s everything to their kid at the moment.
Parents and educators can often feel helpless, too, when they notice a kid who’s struggling to fit in. There’s only so much they can do, and manufactured playdates from the preschool years no longer make sense.
What’s helpful is to understand the overarching developmental needs every kid has. Sure, they want to fit in with a group of friends and avoid rejection. And, they long for acceptance and belonging at a deeper level: accepted for who they authentically are.
So, when you see a kid take a step forward to be unique, celebrate them for their courage.
Whether they take a risk with a fashion choice, taste in music, political belief, or a Friday night plan, the courage it takes to be unique reveals a necessary quality of character every kid will need someday to build a life that really matters.
In the meantime, reserve your critiques for their stylistic choices with their hair or playlist. They don’t need the adults in their life poking at them, too. I’ve often seen parents mock their kids in public (as though anyone would respond to that with sincerity or warmth).
Rather, recognize their exploration as bravery. They’re trying to make their way in this world, searching for deep acceptance of their authentic selves.
So, whether it’s a mullet, baggy jeans, or music you’re not familiar with, acknowledge their expression without a hint of critique or sarcasm.
The safer they feel with you, the more courage they’ll have to face the world and ultimately find true acceptance in the only place they can: from within.