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What Does It Mean to Matter?

Everyone can learn ways to help others feel significant.

Key points

  • Feeling significant is vital for human well-being.
  • Mattering is a protective factor against self-harm.
  • Showing care towards others encourages their sense of mattering.
  • We can learn ways to show care.

In an era when anxiety, depression and suicide are on the rise, it is important to understand a fundamental protective factor: mattering (Drabenstott, 2019; Prihadi et al., 2020; Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981; Schlossberg, 1989). Mattering is vital for health and well-being and is the root of resilience (Flett, 2018). Mattering is a form of welcoming the individual into the community of connection and companionship.

Mattering refers to the feeling that a person is significant in the eyes of others.

“The person who matters is secure in the knowledge that he or she has meaningful connections with other people and that close social bonds have been forged” (Flett, 2018, p. 31).

Flett (2018) reviews the studies on mattering.

What do research studies indicate are components of mattering?

  • Attention (being noticed)
  • Importance (being cared about)
  • Dependence (others are relying on you)
  • Ego extension (someone is emotionally invested in you and affected by what happens to you)
  • Noted absence (being missed)
  • Appreciation (being valuable to another) and
  • Individuation (being cherished for your unique true self).

Both family and community members are fundamental to providing a sense of mattering, a welcoming of the individual into the group. For children, it is important to feel like one matters to parents. Flett (2018) reviews studies of children’s mattering sense: Mattering to mothers is more important than mattering to fathers; adolescents tend to care about parents who care for them.

How does one show care for a baby? Babies resemble fetuses until around 18 months of age, when, for example, skull bone plates fuse after an expected doubling of brain volume. So, showing care to a baby is a little more intense than for other ages. Our evolved nest provides the kind of support babies evolved to expect and that keep them feeling like they matter: for example, keeping them soothed and from feeling distress by meeting basic needs quickly; extensive carrying in arms; interactive responsive playfulness; a stable set of responsive, present caregivers.

How does one show care for a child? Research indicates that warm responsiveness to a child’s communications is primary, including providing unconditional regard even when the child makes mistakes or doesn’t meet expectations. Involving the child in family activities as they desire is also a way to showing mattering. Marginalizing a child occurs when a parent is self-involved, prefers a different child, is generally critical and harsh, or invalidates the child’s emotions and desires.

In an era of nuclear family instead of extended family child-raising, the child may need to turn outside the family for relationships of support. Having at least one stable caring relationship with an adult outside the family is a protective factor, a relationship characterized by attention, empathy, trust, availability, affirmation, respect, and virtue (Laursen & Birmingham, 2003).

The concept of mattering is central to the meaning of “community” and is particularly important as a protective factor for adolescents.

Measures of community bonding are related to various outcomes for adolescents, such as less hopelessness and suicidal ideation. Mattering is a source of well-being for adolescents and especially by parents (Rosenberg, 1985). Adolescents often feel like they don’t matter to adults and so turn to peers for the experience of mattering that parents are not providing.

How is mattering conveyed at school?

The Child Development Project in the 1980s adopted a caring, just community as a first principle for organizing classrooms and demonstrated its effectiveness (Solomon et al., 1996). Caring and just were defined as classrooms where:

  • Teacher-child relationships are warm, mutually trusting, and supportive;
  • Every student’s needs for autonomy, competence, and belonging are met;
  • Students have opportunities to discuss and refine understanding about morality that they practice in the classroom;

Teachers promote these goals with proactive and reactive techniques that support student behavior in conformance with prosocial values (Watson & Eckert, 2018). Social and emotional learning practices (SEL) infuse classrooms with skill and attitude development toward treating one another with respect (Elias et al., 2014). SEL classroom climates increase prosocial behavior. Community oriented classrooms (DeVries & Zan, 1994) are about fostering positive relationships and the joy of interpersonal relations. When climates are caring and positive, they evoke an engagement ethic in which the individual is able to feel and show concern for others (Narvaez, 2014; Narvaez & Bock, 2014).

How can everyone show caring to foster a sense of mattering in others (Flett, 2018)?

  • Ask about what they think or prefer
  • Inquire about their hopes, fears, values, interests.
  • Acknowledge their efforts and achievements.
  • Express gratitude and appreciation to them.
  • Invest time and energy in their well-being.
  • Express belief in the capacities of another.
  • Let them know they are needed.
  • React with compassion when expected or needed.
  • Go out of your way to enhance their well-being.
  • Share events and memories, positive and negative.

In communities disrupted and disconnected by the pandemic and other challenges, each person can help knit the community back together by learning to show care to others to help them feel like they matter. We can "be the person who reminds her or him that everyone has value and everyone counts, including them" (Flett, 2018, p. 305).

References

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Drabenstott M. A (2019). Matter of Life and Death: Integrating Mattering into the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behavior, 49(4):1006-1018. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12504

Elias, MJ., Kranzler, A., Parker, S.J., Kash, V.M., Weissberg, R.P. (2014). The complementary perspectives of social and emotional learning, moral education, and character education. In L. Nucci, D. Narvaez & T. Krettenauer (Eds.), Handbook of Moral and Character Education, 2nd ed. (pp. 272-289). Routledge.

Flett, G.L. (2018). The psychology of mattering: Understanding the human need to be significant. Academic Press.

Kurth, A., & Narvaez, D. (2018). The evolved developmental niche and children’s developing morality. In J. Delafield-Butt, A-W. Dunlop & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), The Child’s Curriculum: Working with the natural values of young children (pp. 104-125). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kurth, A., Narvaez, D., & Tarsha, M. (2020). Meeting basic needs and getting kids on track to fulfill their potential. In T. Tsyrlina-Spady & P. Renn (Eds.), Nurture, Care, Respect, and Trust Transformative Pedagogy Inspired by Janusz Korczak (pp. 115-126). Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

Laursen, E. K., & Birmingham, S. M. (2003). Caring relationships as a protective factor for at-risk youth: An ethnographic study. Families in Society, 84(2), 240–246. https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.101

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

Narvaez, D., & Bock, T. (2014). Developing expertise and moral personalities. In L. Nucci & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Handbook of Moral and Character Education (2nd ed.) (pp. 140-158). New York, NY: Routledge.

Prihadi, K.D.,Wong, C.Y.S., Chong, E.Y.V., & Chong, .Y.X. (2020). Suicidal thoughts among university students: The role of mattering, state self-esteem and depression level. International Journal of Evaluation and Research in Education, 9(3), 494~502. DOI: 10.11591/ijere.v9i3.20587

Rosenberg, M., & McCullough, B.C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents. Research in Community and Mental Health, 2, 1630182.

Schlossberg (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. New Directions in Student Services, 48, 5-15.

Solomon, D., Watson, M., Battistich, V., Schaps, E., & Delucchi, K. (1996). Creating classrooms that students experience as communities. American Journal of Community Psychology 24, 719-748.

Watson, M., & Eckert, L. (2018). Learning to trust: Attachment theory and classroom management. New York: Oxford University Press.

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