The idea of not being included or belonging in the popular crowd can often make a preteen miserable. Now just imagine what it will be like when they get to high school. If they don't become part of a clique, they will "just die." With a little help from the experts, you can help your child – and her social life – survive.
What Is a Clique?
Many experts report that a child tries to find her place in the social puzzle starting at about 8 years old and continuing into middle school. According to Patricia Adler, sociologist, the social circle is the basis of many concepts, actions, reactions and a preteen's reason for existence.
"Belonging to a social group can be the ultimate drive, goal and need for a preteen," says Adler. "There is a true hierarchy of groups. Finding a niche is the most important thing in a youngster's life. It defines who you are. It sets the tone of your everyday experience. Without a group, your life could be hell."
The hierarchy Adler mentions is evident in middle and high schools everywhere. And while the "labeling" of groups may differ, one thing does not: the influence and existence of the "popular group."
"The popular clique is the largest and often the most 'elite' of all cliques," says Adler. "Usually consisting of several overlapping subgroups around a leader and perhaps a best friend, this clique is closed and exclusive. These groups are the cool kids whose leader can cast other members out whenever they want, with the rest of the group following suit."
What Makes Popularity?
Being popular usually involves different traits for boys and girls. While the traits are different, they do offer insight regarding society as a whole. "The breakdown mirrors traditional gender roles," says Adler. "Men are socialized to achieve and girls to catch a man. So for young boys, the main trait influencing popularity is athletic ability, secondary to coolness and/or toughness, modeling a macho masculinity to prove themselves. For girls, popularity is determined first by looks or appearance, then clothes, then socioeconomic status."
There are many different types of groups – popular kids, jocks, skaters, preps, geeks. But regardless of how a person is classified, there's general consensus – people don't like being stereotyped. Why are so many preteens, teens and even adults so compelled to stereotype? It's easy.
"It is much easier to label a person based on your preconceived notions about others who may have a similar manner or appearance than it would be to actually get to know each and every individual you meet," says Adler. "A lot of people may justify their reasons for forming cliques because they feel more comfortable around people with whom they can relate. Another part of the formation of cliques comes down to the vanity that is within all of us. The truth is we care about our appearance, and we care what other people think."
Experts also acknowledge that there is a dark side to cliques. "The downside to any and all cliques is that there are some groups that are valued more highly than others," says Jay Bass, a counselor and violence prevention consultant in Washington, D.C. "Those who do not fit into a specific group may feel neglected or hostile toward those who do and have a higher profile as a result. These individuals may then establish a group identity that is purposely set apart from what they see as being widely accepted."
In addition, the dark side of cliques is where the danger can – and does – begin. "Research shows that when identity focuses around emotional support rather than activity or positive purpose, behaviors tend to be more destructive," says Adler. "When preteens and teens are in a group that defines themselves so rigidly that it excludes other groups, there is more intense competition. Social groups can begin to demonstrate their hostile feelings in a wide variety of negative and harmful behaviors. Teenagers may act out emotionally by teasing, harassing or verbally attacking schoolmates or physically by pushing or hitting. The most extreme, and experts say very rare, form of acting out is the use of guns or other weapons. As the group goes down the road to more destructive behaviors, it may be difficult for the kids not to go along with them."
What Can You Do?
What steps can parents and educators take to make sure that healthy group behavior does not become destructive or victimizing to those who do not fit in? Perhaps, practice what you preach.
"Modeling is number one," says Margaret Sagarese, co-author of Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle (Broadway, 2001). "It's really important [for adults] to model appropriate inclusive-type behaviors. For example, if children repeatedly witness behaviors in adults that appear to place importance on certain racial, ethnic or social groups and exclude those who do not belong, they will likely emulate these behaviors."
In addition to modeling, Sagarese says that parents have many other tools to help their preteen or teen survive the social jungle. "Parents have the tools to help their child succeed in their social lives just as they help in their academic lives," she says. "By giving their children lots of venues for social involvement, maintaining interest in their lives and fostering involvement in extracurricular activities, parents will ensure that there are many different settings in which a child can find friends and social support."
An important part of keeping group dynamics from taking a tragic toll on children is for adults to instill a sense of belonging that is not limited to one social group. Connectedness with parents and identification with school are two of the most protective factors for kids.
Experiences – both positive and negative – help define who we are and shape our personalities but, unfortunately, are not worn on the outside. "You cannot simply look at a person and tell what he or she has been through or what he or she has overcome," says Sagarese. "It is vital that we open up to possibilities and interact with others before we make the snap decision on who or what they are. You never know, a person you pass in the halls might be the one who knows how you feel, shares your passions, interests or your joys, even if they don't care about last week's big game and perhaps even if they don't shop at the Gap."