Fitting in. What is Normal?
Supporting Teens as They Look for What Normal Means
Am I normal? Will I ever fit in? These are two of the ever-present questions in the lives of tweens and teens. The search for answers is what drives their growing sense of self, behaviors, and sometimes, levels of anxiety. The answers, when they finally appear, are what ultimately drives self-acceptance.
We are better prepared to support our adolescents to navigate their lives when we grasp the enormity of the fundamental question “Am I normal?” We gain insight into some of their actions when we remind ourselves of their need to “fit in.”
We help our teens thrive when:
- We make it clear we appreciate them and love them for who they are.
- We offer them the factual knowledge that will help them understand they are normal – even if they are different from many of their peers.
- We help them understand the opportunities for growth, resilience, compassion, and strength that come from being different. This is particularly essential when our children have longstanding learning, physical, or health differences.
- We expose them to role models and peers that will shape them positively.
Change and Development in Adolescence
Adolescence is a time of profound change. Development proceeds at its own pace for each person. Have you ever seen a picture of a seventh-grade classroom? It is difficult to believe that the students are the same age. As adults, we know that it mostly balances out, and might even have learned to celebrate our differences. Now imagine placing yourself back into that picture without your earned wisdom. Recall how easy it was to feel “abnormal” or to believe you would never fit in.
Love Holds Power
There may be nothing more protective in young people’s lives than the unwavering, reliable, love of their parents. Amidst a sea of physical and emotional changes and shifting friendships, being able to count on one solid thing — your parents’ love — holds immeasurable importance. They may not believe us when we say it, especially if they are passing through a particularly vulnerable phase, but they are listening. Young people who know their parents think they are fine just as they are will have the roots that will allow them to remain stable even when the ground seems as if it is shifting.
Young people often have lots of unasked questions about their bodies, including their size, shape, and pubertal development. They also have questions about their emotions and feelings. It’s safe to assume that most tweens and teens have these questions. But it is especially true that these questions loom large if they are not developing like the “average” peer in their class.
You know your child best. They might be most comfortable hearing the facts from you, from a health professional, a book, or from the internet. Health professionals should be well-prepared to examine and then reassure tweens and teens about their development. If you have a particularly shy child, leave books on the topic lying around. (See the resources below.) Taking these actions is important for nurturing self-acceptance.
Being Different Builds Strength
As adults, we know that our greatest strengths often arise from our differences. Our uniqueness allows us to make our most significant contributions. Our resilience is earned by overcoming challenges. These protective understandings come from life experience. Few teens with challenges are able to grasp the long-term benefits of adversity or being different. Understandably, most kids with challenges would trade them in if given the opportunity to just be “normal.” This makes our guidance and shared wisdom particularly important.
Our first instinct as parents might be to minimize our children’s differences and try to reassure them that they don’t matter. Our teens, on the other hand, might be so focused on their challenges that they are blinded to their strengths. We should point out their strengths, without ignoring their challenges. We can highlight how “normal” they are in so many ways, including the ways in which they are stronger than “normal.”
Don’t be afraid to point out those strengths they possess precisely because they earned them. They might roll their eyes while you talk, but trust that they are listening. There is a very good chance that a young person with differences is particularly compassionate and protective of others, committed to family, or less likely to sweat the small stuff. Notice those things. Celebrate them. Doing so can make teens come to realize that they are better than normal in some ways.
If possible, allow your adolescents to spend time with peers who also share a similar difference. It may help them to understand that they fit in. As they see strengths in peers with similar issues, they might more easily come to recognize their own.
Surround Them with Positive Pictures of Normal
Some teens define “normal” entirely based on what they see and how they view themselves in comparison to peers. They may actively try to convince themselves they are indeed normal – by remaking themselves to fit in with that group. All of this explains the far-reaching impact of our teens’ peers. Peers can be a positive or negative influence. You can’t pick your teen’s friends, but you certainly have influence over the places and situations in which your teen will find them.
Starting at young ages, and continuing through adolescence, you can support participation in positive activities. It is in these settings where adult role models and engaged, focused peers are most likely to be found. These places include:
- Classroom settings where young people “stretch” themselves academically, artistically, or vocationally by trying new things.
- Sports leagues
- Youth development organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H as well as your local community organizations.
- Religious and spiritual settings
- After-school programs
- Theatre and art groups
- Apprenticeship opportunities
- Community service initiatives
You can also support key relationships by inviting those peers home to dinner, on family trips, or daily excursions. Careful here — if you are too active in “selecting” a friend, they may suddenly find themselves rejected by your teen.
Finally, adolescents will thrive best within clear boundaries set by parents that assure safety. We want teens to see those boundaries as expected or “normal.” If your boundaries are far stricter or more rigid than those their peers must follow, they might rebel. For example, your teen may think it is “totally unfair” that you insist on knowing whether there is adult supervision at parties. As a result, your adolescent may sneak away to these parties rather than be subjected to the humiliation of having the only parent who cares about this. On the other hand, this could be quite normal if it is a community standard. Kids don’t rebel against what they see as normal – they go along with those expectations because they can fit right in when they do so.
Create a healthy, expected normal by working with other parents to develop common expectations, rules and boundaries.
A Word on Media
It is hard to exaggerate the extent that media shapes viewpoints of what it means to be teenagers. The news highlights outlandish, especially dangerous, teen behaviors. Music accentuates rebellion and sexuality. The Internet normalizes daring (even stupid) choices. Television and movies present adolescence as simultaneously a carefree period and one filled with endless angst. Our preteens and tweens, in particular, look at these portrayals of “the teen years” and note how they are supposed to behave and what they are supposed to feel. We need to watch alongside them and help to point out what is fantasy versus reality.
But just as peers can be a positive or negative force, with our help, the media can also be a source of good. We can share news stories highlighting the positive achievements of young people, the contributions they make to our communities, and their efforts to stand up for what they see as right. Music often speaks to the idealism of youth and reminds them they can choose to be individuals and to do what is right for society. Television and movies often portray the exuberance and can-fix-it mentality of youth.
We need to highlight the positive messages found within media and challenge the undermining ones. Be cautious. Comment rarely and judiciously, or you may find that your teen refuses to watch with you anymore. We must allow for media to continue to serve as an escape. When we are always there, inserting our views, teens may retreat to their private spaces.
We have some deeper dives into this issue and recommend three resources to help you think through media’s influence on your teen and how you can be a protective force in your adolescent’s relationship with media:
Digital Dads and Media Moms by Yalda Uhls
Center on Media and Child Health
If you want even more knowledge about your teen’s personal growth and physical development, here are some helpful websites: