Even as an adult, when I walk into an unfamiliar social situation I am anxiously thinking, “I hope I see someone I know who I can talk to.”  Underneath this thought, however, is a need to belong. We all have this need, but during adolescence is often when we find that filling this need is most critical.

Canopy CEO John D. Damon, Ph. D

When we think about the silly things kids do these days, it’s easy as adults to forget how deeply that desire to fit in affects young people. Remember what it was like walking into the classroom of a new school, going by yourself to a popular social event, or walking into the Sunday School class alone?

For most kids, these are terrifying moments and the one thought running through their minds, “will I fit in – do I belong?”

Sadly, kids spend many days feeling lost and unwelcomed, even in familiar situations. We know that 1 in 5 kids struggles with a mental health challenge, with anxiety disorders being at the top of the list. In an anxious person, the brain tells the body that you are in danger and you must find a way to survive. This narrows down life decisions to two options – run or fight. When a child with anxiety finds himself in an uncomfortable or unwelcoming situation, his heart rate increases, breathing is rapid and shallow, palms are cold and clammy. He may feel sick to his stomach or notice his head feels “swimmy” as all the blood rushes from his extremities to his torso and brain. How well do you think he will navigate this novel social situation? If you guessed, not very well, you’re onto something. So, what do we do?

We equip our kids with five simple words that have the potential to change the world – “WILL YOU SIT WITH ME?” If we teach our kids to watch for unfamiliar faces walking into the classroom, or be in-tune to notice the kids along the fringe and invite them in. “Will you sit with me?” will suddenly tear down the barriers to inclusion and change the world for kids with the greatest potential to feel as though they don’t belong.

Every child wants to feel included

Kids experiencing loneliness, social isolation, or feeling disconnected from the group are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse or suicide. By teaching our kids how to be inclusive, and to care for one another, we are surrounding kids with the positive support they need to face and overcome adversity. It all starts with an invitation – “Will you sit with me?”

Content provided by John D. Damon, Ph. D

Get more tips from Canopy experts in the Your Child’s Health Fall 2019 insert from Parents and Kids Magazine.