The Importance of a Child's Social Identity

the effects of social identity on children

Verywell / Catherine Song

Childhood is an important period of social development, particularly in the formation of social identity, or a person's sense of who they are based upon group affiliations. For some children, the way they feel about themselves and their social identities may contribute to their vulnerability to depression. Depression is a complex condition influenced by a range of factors, but there is evidence that social factors can play a critical role.

What Is Social Identity?

Every child has a social identity, which is how we perceive our various roles in society in relation to others. Whether it is through social position, culture or ethnicity, interests, achievements, or beliefs, children derive a sense of pride, self-worth, and consistency from their social identities.

When social identity is rapidly changed, threatened, or questioned, a child may become vulnerable to depression.

The People Around Us

In order to have a social identity, we need people around us to confirm or deny. In order to identify as "Kelly's best friend," Kelly must confirm it.

The people around us also influence our social identities and the way we feel about ourselves. If a child is very shy and withdrawn, it is likely that other children will pick up on that child's social cues and leave them alone, thus confirming the child's social identity as "shy and withdrawn." In turn, the child may lack satisfaction in their social role, feel lonely, or become frustrated trying to break free from that identity.

Why Is Identity Important for Children?

Social identity allows people to be part of groups and gain a sense of belonging in their social world. These identities play an important role in shaping self-image. 

The more people identify with a particular group, the more that group plays a role in shaping how people feel about themselves. Being a member of that group becomes important for how a person regards themselves and their abilities, so gaining status within the group can help people feel more confident, satisfied, and respected.

When people are depressed, they tend to experience social withdrawal. Studies have found that social factors can also be important causes of depression. For example, research has shown that periods of loneliness are predictive of the onset of depression.

Social identification is important because it influences how people see themselves and how they interact with others. If people have a positive view of their identity within a group, they are more likely to relate well to others in that group and feel positive emotions about themselves.

Researchers suggest that other important benefits of social identity include: 

  • It helps foster prosocial actions like caring for other receiving social support
  • It helps satisfy the psychological need for esteem from others
  • It provides people a sense of belongingness within a social group

Everyone Is Different

But not all children who experience changes or threats to their social identities will experience depression. Instead, it is thought that those who identify with a limited number of social roles are more at risk of developing depression when a role is lost or threatened.

For example, a child who only sees themselves as a star soccer player may experience discomfort and a sense of loss if they suddenly become injured and is unable to play soccer anymore. The child may lose their status as a star athlete, spend less time with their teammates and friends, and ultimately may see a decrease in their self-esteem, which opens the door for depression.

This is not to say that a child cannot develop a new social identity, but it simply highlights the importance of how a child views themselves in relation to the world around them.

How to Support Your Child's Identity

As a parent, you can support your child's social roles by acknowledging what and who is important to them. Try not to place too much emphasis on any one single social role. Instead, encourage them to try new and different things, and remind them of the other important roles that they play in life, like child, grandchild, sibling, cousin, student, community member, teen advocate, neighbor, etc.

It is normal for your child to feel sad after a disappointment or the loss of a significant relationship, but if you notice that your child is showing symptoms of depression, seek advice from their pediatrician or other mental health providers.

Signs to Watch Out For

Some signs that your child may be having social problems or symptoms of depression include:

  • Losing interest in activities they once loved
  • Sleeping more or less than normal
  • Having trouble concentrating on school work
  • Eating more or less than normal
  • Expressing feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Being more irritable than usual
  • Becoming isolated from friends or family

If any of these symptoms have been going on for more than two weeks, it may be time to consult your pediatrician or mental health professional.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ehsan AM, De Silva MJ. Social capital and common mental disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2015;69(10):1021-1028. doi:10.1136/jech-2015-205868

  2. Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA. Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychol Aging. 2010;25(2):453-63. doi:10.1037/a0017216

  3. Cruwys T, Haslam SA, Dingle GA, Haslam C, Jetten J. Depression and social identity: An integrative review. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2014;18(3):215-238. doi:10.1177/1088868314523839

Additional Reading

By Lauren DiMaria
Lauren DiMaria is a member of the Society of Clinical Research Associates and childhood psychology expert.