It is not surprising that mattering to one’s family would protect us from risks and threats. In one of the most comprehensive studies on mattering, a social psychologist at Brown University, Gregory Elliot, examined the relationship between mattering to one’s family in adolescence and two types of problems: anti-social and self-destructive behaviors. The study, which included over 2000 teenagers, confirmed the fundamental importance of mattering, and the risks associated with its absence.
Elliot defines mattering as the perception that “we are a significant part of the world around us.” For him, mattering consists of awareness, importance, and reliance. Awareness implies that others notice our presence and that we are not invisible. Importance refers to the fact that we are the object of someone’s caring and concern. They worry about us when we are down, and celebrate with us when we are up. We are part of their lives. Reliance, in turn, means that other people have faith in us and come to us for help when required. We feel needed and valued because we have something meaningful to offer. Awareness and importance fit very well with the aspect of mattering we call feeling valued. Reliance, in turn, parallels our notion of adding value. In this case, adding value to others.
Confirming his predictions, lack of mattering in one’s family resulted in both anti-social and self-destructive behaviors. With regards to the former, he argues that teens will do anything to feel like they matter, including dysfunctional acts of defiance. Faced with indifference and disregard from their own families, teens “force mattering by acting in outrageous and often undesirable ways.” The findings showed that as a sense of mattering in the family decreased, violence against others, vandalism, truancy, theft, and carrying weapons increased sharply. According to Elliot, it is better to get negative attention than no attention at all. His results, as well as recent school shootings, prove the point.
But lack of mattering can also result in self-destructive behavior. In the same study, it was found that adolescents who matter to their families were far less likely to binge drink, use illicit drugs, plan or attempt suicide. Clearly, mattering is a protective mechanism, and not just in childhood and adolescence. Its protective qualities persist throughout the lifecycle.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.