EVERYONE NEEDS A TRIBE

Social connection is a fundamental human need. It is through this connectedness with family, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and the community, that helps form a person’s sense of self-identity and belonging. Without meaningful relationships and social interaction, our mental and physical health can suffer immensely.

This concept of social belonging and connectedness was a missing element in my childhood. You see, my parents were Vietnamese refugees. They didn’t understand the importance of social connectedness or fostering good mental health. My folks were constantly treading water and struggling to pull on their own life jackets. They grappled with the English language, laboured in menial and low-waged jobs, and moved from one rental property to another at such a frequency that no place was considered home. There were times we hadn’t even unpacked our boxes before we had to move again. I’ve slept in many one-bedroom flats where my ‘room’ was a partitioned off area in the lounge room. I’ve lived in caravans; slummed in garages where planks of wood shoved together was my makeshift bed; slept in a car at the back of a restaurant; lived off the scraps of others. I worked in sweatshops and farms to help my parents make ends meet. I was my younger brother’s surrogate parent by the age of eight.

I moved schools almost every year because of my parent’s vagabond lifestyle. No one wanted to make friends with the new loner kid that transferred mid-year, dressed in poor imitation clothing and was deathly quiet. As a result, kids avoided me and I was left alone at recess and lunchtime, usually feeling awkward and sad. I became proficient at building an impenetrable wall, cutting off all connections and choosing to live in the fantasy world of books. I never stayed anywhere long enough to form friendships, to interact on a deeper level with my peers, to find my sense of belonging and purpose within the school environment or community.

As a young adult, I found it difficult to trust people. I couldn’t commit a hundred percent to any connection. For doing so would mean breaking down my walls of vulnerability, letting go of my fears of rejection and opening myself up to the judgement of others. So I had one leg out of every relationship I formed; girlfriends, boyfriends, even in the early stages of my marriage. My inner child was forever yearning for friendship and crying for love, but my adult façade was impossibly stoic and impassive. No one knew how displaced I felt as a human being, as a person. I had basically accepted that I would always feel like an outlier in society.

People say that having children changes you; that the transformation is profound and life-altering; that your beliefs and values can shift and be redefined; that parenthood can have you questioning your sense of identity. People say that without conscious thought, your parenting style can be influenced by your own childhood history, your natural disposition and cultural background. I think there might be validity to these suggestions.

The arrival of my children had me reflecting on the driving factors that influenced my past decisions and actions. Their presence forced me to consider my childhood and lack of social connectedness. It had a massive impact on the person that I became.

What could I do to make sure my children wouldn’t suffer the same fate? I knew that I had fostered a strong attachment and parental bond with my children, and that I bathed them with feelings of love, value and respect. But part of building their sense of self and belonging also involved them having positive peer, school and community connectedness.

How could I encourage my children to engage with others when I was to scared to do so myself? I needed to lead by example. It meant that I had to re-evaluate my own levels of social and community connections. I had to work on building and maintaining positive connections with my family and friends. I needed to start engagement and volunteering with the school and community. I had to work on my sense of belonging. I had to find my tribe.

I discovered that I was already a part of many tribes. I have supportive and loving family. I have wonderful friends. I have engaging acquaintances, online and in person. I am part of the school family and the wider community. It was just a matter of me smashing down those walls and reaching out to connect with people. And I am truly grateful to everyone that has enriched my life by being a part of it.

My hope is that I will be a good role model and that my children will find their sense of self and belonging. And that it won’t take them almost forty years to find it.

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