Small children are among the most freely unique individuals around, and often don’t care what anyone thinks about them.
If they want to sing at the top of their lungs, they sing at the top of their lungs. If they want to wear a silly hat, mix-matched socks or gloves on a hot day, they do it – with no regard for how others might judge their eccentricities.
Somewhere along the line, though, most children long to fit in. They begin to worry that their differences make them stand out – and not in a good way. So, they try to conform to what they perceive their peers or society expect from them. According to the Child Mind Institute, by the time kids are teenagers this tendency to compare themselves to their peers can even lead to “imposter syndrome.” That’s when they’ve so carefully crafted an image at school or on social media that they no longer feel it matches who they really are.
“Unfortunately, in the process they begin to hide what makes them unique instead of embracing it,” says Jennifer Lynch. Lynch is an educator, child advocate and author of the new children’s book Livi and Grace.
“They become embarrassed or sad about their differences, maybe feel that people think they are strange, and that other kids won’t like them or won’t play with them. And in truth, other children sometimes will bully a child who is seen as different.”
The good news: Parents can help.
Lynch has served as an advocate for children in the court system, foster care and treatment facilities. In working with those children, many of whom are abused or neglected, she says you often have to help them overcome their insecurities about their differences.
“It’s important for them and all children to believe in themselves,” she says. “They need to understand that different is okay. It’s our differences that make us special.”
This message is so universally important, that it became the theme of Lynch’s children’s book. It’s based on her daughters and their distinct personalities.
“My two girls are so unlike one another that it’s almost shocking,” she says. “It made me think back to the children I encounter in the court system who say they dislike or even hate themselves because they feel different from their peers or their siblings.”
Lynch says some of the ways parents or other adults can help children include:
Remind them that differences make people special.
Lynch says it’s natural for children to long to fit in with their peers. However, it’s also important for them to understand that their unique individuality is what makes them unique. “Differences are interesting and life enriching,” she says. “Part of the message is that you should appreciate the diverse traits in everyone you know, and also appreciate what makes you special.”
Talk to them about the ways in which they shine.
“Kids like talking about themselves,” Lynch says. “So get them involved in a conversation about what they are good at. Maybe that is sports, or writing. Maybe they make good grades or they are a good big brother or friend. Whatever their special talent is, explore it with them so they know that there is something they do well.”
Encourage them to help other kids feel good about themselves.
Young people can feel empowered not only by embracing their differences, but also by providing support and being a friend to others who are different. “When you help a child pick out positive things about themselves,” Lynch says, “they begin to focus on that, not the hurtful things that weigh so heavy on their hearts and minds.”
Jennifer Lynch, author of the children’s book Livi and Grace (www.jenniferlynchbooks.com), is an educator and child advocate. She serves as a guardian ad litem, a person appointed to represent a child’s interests in a court case. She has worked as a special education teacher for an elementary school and as a preschool teacher. In addition, Lynch created the You Are Good brand of T-shirts and other products for sale and for donations. Thousands of the shirts have been donated to children and teenagers in the system. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas A&M University.