The ‘social inclusion’ of young people, particularly those who are ‘not in education, employment or training’, is a contemporary concern in policy discourses. However, it has been argued that the term ‘social inclusion’ is defined by adults and imposed on young people, and there is little understanding of what ‘social inclusion’ means to young people themselves. Using a participatory methodology, this study investigated what ‘being included’ meant to young people. A qualitative approach with a thematic analysis was used to explore the accounts of 11 participants and yielded three main themes. ‘“Acceptance”—the building blocks of inclusion’ reflected the power of interpersonal acceptance in determining young people's sense of inclusion. ‘“Learning why I don't matter”—when power and discourse shape inclusion’ illustrated how social discourses and power dynamics influenced young people's experience of inclusion. ‘“Keeping up or falling behind”—internalising the discourse of inclusion’ reflected how young people internalised some of these societal definitions of inclusion and responded to them. Those who felt ‘accepted’ or ‘included’ in a ‘mainstream’ sense articulated a sense of agency and hope. For those who did not, it appeared that agency dissolved as did a sense of hope for the future. Although the participants negotiated their ‘inclusion’ through close, trusting relationships with others, the application of the societal discourses of inclusion such as productivity, independence and career mindedness had the potential to leave them feeling excluded, isolated and distressed. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.