Why do humans long to belong?

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Part 1 of a 3 Part Series on Basic Human Psychological Needs: Intentional Parenting


As humans, we long to belong because Relatedness is one of our core psychological human needs*. It’s a basic human need that we all share no matter our race, gender, wealth or religion. It doesn’t mean we’re needy, we’re simply neurologically and psychologically wired to want to feel significant to others, be included as part of a group and be loved.

A sense of belonging connects us to our tribe–the people we learn life skills from. That includes family, friends, teachers, preachers. Anyone who is important to a Little Learner.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Despite the incredibly complex makeup of a human being physically and emotionally, we are pretty simple creatures. If we take a 10,000ft view Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows the need for love and belonging fits right after all our physical needs are met and we feel safe and secure. The next focus in life is to build our connection with others through friendships and love.

From a development perspective

Generally speaking every human follows a similar developmental path for the first 5-7 years:

The little human is developing and is fully reliant on the mother to feed and care for them as they develop in the womb. This is when the very early stages of connection and belonging begin to form.

0-2 years:
During this stage, it’s the parent’s job to ensure the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are satisfied. The babies job is to explore the world and learn. Their brains are developing at an incredible speed, taking in every touch, sight, taste sound and coding them into feelings. Before children turn 3 years old, they’re already forming 1 million neural connections every minute.

At this stage it’s pretty simple – the Little Learner experiences things as either feeling good or not feeling good, or that worked or didn’t work, or I do this and that happens. The Little Learner does something, like cry or smile, and the parent/carer returns a response. This is referred to as ‘Serve & Return‘. When it comes to relatedness and relationships, they either feel comfortable and safe based on the attention and responses they recieve, or scared, physically uncomfortable or insecure.

For example, babies cry when they can’t see or sense their parents in the same room, commonly known as separation anxiety, because they have no concept of spatial separation. “It’s ok, Mum is in the next room. She hasn’t left you and she will return.” Babies haven’t yet learnt that someone can be present even if unseen, and if they are unseen that they haven’t disappeared forever.

“We know from neuroscience that neurons that fire together, wire together. Neural connections are like the roots of a tree, the foundation from which all growth occurs.”

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, Psychotherapist

3-5 years:
This stage is about flexing and exploring the boundaries of relationships. Making new friends, learning to share and how to be kind or exercising power or testing manipulative behaviour to satisfy a want. This stage is very important for the development of strong and positive emotional regulation skills. A child who isn’t getting their need for belonging and relatedness satisfied is likely to devise other means of getting attention (good or bad).

Spend time focusing on expanding your Little Learners ability to recognise and decipher emotions, what causes them and how to change them. What they observe in the home, at school on TV all play a big part in their development.

This is the stage that has the most impact on a child’s disposition. Are they going to be self-centred, believing the world revolves around them and their needs and wants, throwing tantrums if they don’t feel heard or get what they want? Or are they feeling loved and special because their significant carers take time to focus on them, listen and help them play to learn?

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”


6-7 years:
By now Little Learners have observed, experienced and learnt some pretty powerful beliefs and behaviours. Don’t worry, their learning is not set in stone. But if your Little Learner is showing signs of becoming one of the kids that other kids try to avoid, you’ve got some work to do.

Remember, it’s not the child that is bad, it’s the behaviour that is the problem. Behaviours are clues. Your job is to be aware of the clues and signals you Little Learner is giving you, and to help them feel that they belong if that is the bucket that needs filling.

How to nurture a sense of belonging

As a parent, we are one of the most important people in their world (Here’s a secret fact: that’s why a lot of parents become parents… yup! Research shows, but that’s a different post for another day). It is part of our role to build a sense of belonging and connection with our Little Learners.

All it takes is 10-minutes a day per child.

Here are some quick suggestions you can try:

  • Use the bed time routine to take 10 minutes of undivided attention with your Little Learner. Let them choose a book for you to read, or a memory to share or sing some songs or make up a story together. My Little Learners love hearing stories about them as a baby or me as a child.
  • Go for a walk together or to the park and do whatever they want to do.
  • Let them choose a game they’d like to play, put your phone away and immerse yourself in the fun learning. HOT TIP: Playing is just as good for the Big Learners as it is for the Littles.
  • Plant some plants and look after the garden together. This is a great opportunity to nurture other core values such as ‘respect for things’.

The only rule is no screens or devices. To achieve the strongest connection and sense of belonging, you need to fully be together in the moment, giving undivided attention.

I know, it can be hard to find the time with a to-do list as long as your arm. But think for a moment about the cost of not taking the time during the developmental years to build strong emotional and social management skills with your Little Learners.

Soon they will be in high school, then the work force and attracting a life partner. You and I both know it takes strong character and values to navigate some of the curve balls life throws your way. Especially those that involve relationships and a healthy sense of belonging. They will thank you for a life time and you will have peace of mind that you’ve done a great job. #YouveGotThis

A word of support…

You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be present and aware of what’s happening both for you and your Little Learners. You are probably doing more of this than you realise. Reading to your little ones, imaginary play, preparing a meal together and talking about something they want to discuss, going for a walk or a bike ride… these are all opportunities to spend one on one time with your Little Learner and fulfil their sense of belonging and significance.

Sometimes we slip and inadvertently. But hold the #MumGuilt and take a brief moment, a millisecond even, and ask yourself, is that your MO (modus operandum) or is it your impulsive reaction once in a while? I’m sure it’s the latter, and if that’s the case, you aren’t doing any damage, so go easy on yourself. You’re doing great.

Some other resources you may find helpful:

Are you Raising Competent or Dependent Little Learners? Part 2 of a 3 Part Series on Basic Human Psychological Needs

The importance of encouraging Autonomy in Little Learners Part 3 of a 3 Part Series on Basic Human Psychological Needs

How to change ‘Tudes with the Pattern Interrupt process

How to handle a Bossy BUU

For those who need quick access to the ‘Tude Choosing tool!


*Basic Psychological Needs Theory

Blog Header image by Fabian Centeno on Unsplash. eCourse images by Ben White on Unsplash

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