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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For some children, the way they feel about themselves and their social identities may contribute to their vulnerability to depression.

Understanding 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.

So, when their social identity is rapidly changed, threatened, or questioned, it is no wonder that a child may become vulnerable to depression.

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 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.

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 If a child is very shy and withdrawn, it is likely that other children will pick up on her social cues and leave her alone, thus confirming her social identity as "shy and withdrawn."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.

Supporting Your Child's Social 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 provider.

Symptoms of Depression

If your child starts losing interest in activities she once loved, sleeping more or less than normal, having trouble concentrating on her school work, eating more or less than normal, expressing feelings of sadness or hopelessness, being more irritable than usual and/or isolating herself, and if any of these symptoms have been going on for more than two weeks, it may be time to consult your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Sources:

Jonathon D. Brown. The Self. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

Keith Oatley and Winifred Bolton. A Social & Cognitive Theory of Depression in Reaction to Life Events. Psychological Review. July 1985. 92(3): 372-388.

Ulrich Orth, Richard W. Robins, Brent W. Roberts. Low Self-Esteem Prospectively Predicts Depression in Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2008; 95(3): 695-708.

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