Belonging Why your teenager wants to be an EMO this week!



Now before you launch into that age old saying “Do you really have to go out of the house dressed like that” to your teenager dressed in the latest ‘emo’ clothes, consider this first.

If you have a teenager like me, it might seem like your living with about 7 different personalities in the space of an hour, but rest assured there is something significant happening here that might just mean they will grow into functioning, beautiful and amazing human beings who can see outside themselves. Before we become too judgemental, bitter and twisted about the young people of today; let’s cast our minds back to the time when Boy George and Wham were top of the charts. Big hair, shoulder pads and skinny ties were what really mattered in life. When the Live Aide Concerts really meant something and Sir Bob Geldof was just Bob.  When parents said be home before its dark and go and get a tan. These were the days, times and values that helped shape who we thought we were. These are just some of the things that gave us a sense of belonging to something or someone.   

Chances are we were searching for a sense of identity different from our parents, different from the generation before and chance are we wanted a sense of belonging somewhere other than family and home.

So my teenager has got me thinking again, what is my sense of belonging, where does it come from and why the hell is it so important to us humans? More importantly will it help me better understand my 14 year old child?

It seemed liked an easy question? Must be plenty of information about that on the net I thought! What I didn’t bank on was that figuring out my own sense of belonging wasn’t going to be an easy task.

It’s easy to know what it feels like if you don’t belong, some of us have spent time here on more than one occasion. Just ask the mothers forced to hand their babies over for adoption, the adopted children, those suffering mental illness, refugees, the disenfranchised, the only gay kid in the school, the fattest women in the gym class, the old man who has lost his wife of 40 years and in our Country (Australia), the biggest theft of belonging ever, the stolen generations.  The feelings of loneliness, longing, hopelessness, isolation, identity confusion and deep sadness plague those who don’t feel a sense of belonging. Sometimes if that sense of belonging is never realised those feelings never subside.

Belonging can mean something different to each of us according to our culture, our values and our beliefs. We can belong to people, place, self, relationships, communities, herds, tribes, and to gods the list is endless. At one stage my teenage friends and I thought we belonged as groupies of a Christian pop group, “The Travellers” and none of us were or are the least bit religious.

According to one of Australia’s best social researchers Hugh Mackay our identity is often group based. This means we often find ourselves in herds and tribes and sometimes both.

The herd he describes as a small group (6-8 people), linked by a common interest, existing to mainly nurture confidence, to maintain friendships and relationships and they reinforce our common values and prejudices. Think about your immediate family units, groups like book clubs, bands, sporting teams and Facebook groups.  Herds can have their own language and in jokes that others on the outside don’t understand.

An example of a human herd think the Kardasians!

Existing to nurture confidence and reinforce beliefs, values and relationships.

The Tribe on the other hand is on a larger scale, it has a passionate sense of identity and belonging sometimes reinforced with rituals and traditions. The tribal symbols are worn with pride and sometimes arrogance, for example symbols like body paint, markings and piercings, badges, costumes and uniforms. A tribe usually has a mission. It could be simple or complicated, one tribe’s mission might be to store enough food for the tribe, and another’s might be to increase membership to ensure survival. Tribe members have the same ideas, values and beliefs. Tribes can be enemies with other tribes, there can be stubbornness about tribes, about their beliefs and a dogma that will not be shifted. Tribes have the ability to become self-obsessed, arrogant, powerful, vulnerable and corrupt. Hatred of others is the worst of all characteristics of tribal behaviour.   Tribes also have language and jargon that makes it easier for tribal members to participate but also excludes others and reinforces power structures.

Tribes: Exist to achieve a mission based on the tribe’s values and beliefs.

For example: extended families, religious groups and sporting clubs.

According to Mackay families set the foundations for our sense of belonging in the world. Scary I know!

Today our family herds might be smaller and more single person households but we still crave that sense of belonging in the world, especially if our foundations from family were shaky. Sometimes our herds are too far away geographically from the tribes we come from (extended families) or our values no longer fit the tribe’s values. In some respects we need look no further than our home computers and phones to feel like we belong. You only have to look at the popularity of social media to see people are craving a sense of belonging that doesn’t require too much effort and time away from work and home. Look around you community, you can also see herds grazing at local coffee shops on every corner with their neighbourhood tribes. When we meet someone new we look for tribal connections by asking questions about “What school did you go to” “are you related too…”? These are short cuts so we can find our tribal members. Teenagers in a room full of older folks may look out for the only other young person identifiable by the tribal head wear ear plugs coming from the ears. 

We can sometimes become so obsessed with belonging that nothing else matters and our willingness to do whatever it takes to fit into the tribe becomes obsessive and dangerous especially where the tribe is willing to exploit this desire to please. Gangs come to mind, but so to do religions and cults. We can become so obsessed with belonging that we no longer ask questions of ourselves or others we have blind faith as this is apparent proof of loyalty. For a young person without life experience and a strong desire to belong anywhere you can see why a drug ring tribe or a street gang tribe might be appealing places to find a sense of belonging.

I remember once working with a young person who so desperately wanted to continue to work for the local drug dealer even though the consequences (continual court appearances charges and threat of imprisonment) were so detrimental to their future.  I asked the most obvious question of course, why? The answer was simple really. “I now belong somewhere”.

Until that young person worked for the local dealer they were just another young unemployed bum sitting at home smoking dope and taking up space on their mother’s sofa with no purpose or sense of hope. The drug dealer offered this young person a reason to get up in the morning, a status in the community, money to buy more drugs and have a “better” time and most importantly to that young person a sense of belonging to something bigger then poverty. “The brotherhood” was stronger than any law or family influence. Sadly he ended up in prison and he now belongs to a larger prison tribe.

We’ve all done it, gone against our values just so we can belong. I often look back to high school and think why I didn’t speak up when the popular girls picked on the isolated and disadvantaged girl with no friends. I think sadly it came down to wanting to belong and definitely not stand out. When you’re not sure of who you are and where you fit standing out from the crowd can seem like the worst option. Today I’m slightly older and wiser I realise difference is more than ok and I take pride in being the black sheep, the quirky one, the one who takes a different path. It means I have a sense of who I am and what’s really important to me and my herd.

Although I must admit even as an adult we can get taken in by ‘commercial tribalism’ and desperately want to belong to the brand club, without even knowing it.

What’s scary as a parent of a teenager today is that often there is a strong perception that the right to belong must first be earned? Some parents have to sit a test to belong to a prestigious school community sometimes before the child is even born.  Unless we are successful according to our tribes criteria (the schools criteria for enrolment, the churches criteria for “good Christian” or the sporting clubs criteria for champion) we simple feel we don’t. It’s kind of sad that we see belonging as a something that needs to be earned when belonging as a human should be a right, it’s an unconditional need. Sometimes those criteria’s to belong are so unrealistic that people are doing all sorts of things just to belong.

Parent’s sleep outside schools before enrolment day to ensure enrolment, young men and women starve themselves to meet the criteria of mainstream “beautiful” and people will work longer, harder, faster to climb the ladder of success even if family, friends and values fall off along the way. If people (especially young people) can’t reach that success to belong they can react in these ways:

  1. Drop out and hold onto that experience of failure.
  2. Find another tribe that accepts them even if that tribe is detrimental
  3. Only accept perfectionism and sadly suicide can be a casualty of this.  

The desire to belong can provide us with powerful positive experiences and make us who we want to be, but the dark side of belonging can be the pressure to conform to comply and lose all a sense of self, a sense of what matters and carry heavy shame.

I remember growing up in a low income family with young parents and living in a housing area. My mother’s family made it clear that we were the ‘poor’ element of the family even though they didn’t speak it out loud to me I felt it. I knew we didn’t quite belong. As a child I resented my parents for not being middle class and allowing us to belong to our cousins and extended family, I always sought out middle class friends and always hid the fact that we didn’t have much. My parents told me I was never satisfied but it was more than that it was that need to belong to the extended tribe, belong to that perceived idea of success.

As we grew older I was despised for claiming study allowances from the government and we were clearly the black sheep of the family for pursing education at the expense of the government.

Somewhere along the line I started to be proud of our efforts to overcome barriers to a good education and to push ourselves beyond what was expected. I started to realise that once what was a source of shame and embarrassment was now a sense of pride. I wore my working class badge with pride and still do. My values gap to the tribe was becoming more and more obvious and I started to feel good about this difference, I started to stop idolising the tribe and started to see the reality of what the tribe really believed. I realised we were better than ok and I also started to see my parents differently and stopped blaming them for being poor.

Then something happened to really concrete us as the proud black sheep of the tribe.

At the age of 39 our Dad decided to go to University. The Tribe were against this idea, sprouting righteous values about the need to work and look after your family as the most important role. The values gap grew wider at this point and the herd pulled away from the tribe. The herd were really proud of Dad for having the courage to study at this point in his life and the desire to create a better life for his family and himself. Sadly he only got to realise this dream for 2 months before he died suddenly. Today I take pride in being the black sheep it has helped to shape me and I know I belong to the fringe dwellers, those people who never really belong to the tribe.

As a parent I ask myself all the time am I providing a sense of belonging for my child, do they feel at home around me? Do they know where to come in times of trouble, do they feel safe and do they know who they are and where they come from? Perhaps I need to ask this more often to my teenager and if the answer is no, then maybe I shouldn’t be so afraid to ask, how can I do it differently so you feel you belong.


I wonder if we are really honest as parents we might ask, are we too distracted in this modern age today as to take the time to provide a sense of belonging for our young.


Ultimately all I really want for my young is for them to be able to explore their identities in safe and unharmful ways. So what If they like wearing emo clothing, listening to punk rock, or dressing like Lady Gaga, something significant is happening they are carving out an identity, exploring where they belong. As long as they always know they have a place to call home, a place to belong and a herd they belong to just because  they are who they are and nothing more.




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