The Importance of a Child's Social Identity

Social Roles Play an Important Part in the Way Children Feel About Themselves

self-conscious teen girl
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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 If a child is very shy and withdrawn, it is likely that other children will pick up on her social cues and leave her alone, thus confirming her social identity as "shy and withdrawn." In turn, she may lack satisfaction in her social role, feel lonely, or become frustrated trying to break free from that identity.

Why Social Identity Matters

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 to 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

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 herself as a star soccer player may experience discomfort and a sense of loss if she suddenly becomes injured and is unable to play soccer anymore. She may lose her status as a star athlete, spend less time with her teammates and friends, and ultimately may see a decrease in her 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 herself in relation to the world around her.

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 her. Try not to place too much emphasis on any one single social role. Instead, encourage her to try new and different things, and remind her of the other important roles that she plays in life, like daughter, granddaughter, sister, 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 she has symptoms of depression, seek advice from her 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 she 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.

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