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Teen Popularity Pressures

Understanding How Popularity Can Pressure Your Teen

The desire to fit in can be overwhelming for children. Our children look to model the examples of popularity they see on television and in magazines. They equate being part of a specific group with social status, personal accomplishments and good fortune. Fitting in – or feeling like you don't fit in – can affect a child's self-esteem, grades and communication and leadership skills.

While most would associate the pressures of popularity solely with teens, it is surprising to learn that children begin to form social groups and standards as early as first grade. They gravitate toward classmates for a variety of reasons such as personality, ability and appeal.

The added stress of the physical changes that puberty brings often sends teens and tweens scrambling for a social group to feel safe in. Some children try to blend into the melting pot of styles, ideals and opinions represented in the halls of their school in the hopes of not being viewed as different or original. Others opt for a contrasting strategy of intentionally trying to stand out in the hopes of somehow fitting into a crowd of "originals" or "social misfits."

Why It's Trouble

High school teacher Liz Maurin has seen how overpowering the quest to be popular can be. Unfortunately, she has seen the situation turn ugly. "Kids resort to behavior that borders on dangerous just to get the attention of a member of the opposite sex or to break into a clique," she says. "They've learned how to manipulate situations and words just to be popular."

It can be difficult for adults to navigate through these various pressure situations. For a child or teenager, it can be nearly impossible to stand up to the mounting pressure to be popular. Spreading rumors, telling lies or being intentionally hurtful are just a few of the scenarios our children face daily to gain recognition amidst their peers.

Maurin, a foreign language teacher in Barrington, Ill., has seen some of her students teeter on the verge of a breakdown from the pressure to get into the "in" crowd. "Kids will intentionally ruin their GPAs because they don't want to be considered too smart," she says. "They'll defy their parents, teachers and counselors just to go along with what their group is doing."

In a study at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found evidence to support what Maurin sees in the halls of her school. They learned that young people connect risky behavior with popularity. The study also found that nearly 75 percent of teens believe their peers who are perceived as popular were more likely to engage in drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or pot or gambling than their "unpopular" ones. "Young people believe that cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol are easily accessible, and many believe that the popular kids drink and smoke cigarettes or marijuana," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the center. "Since popular kids shape the norms that influence the attitudes and behaviors of those their age, this combination of popularity and accessibility is a dangerous mix."

What You Can Do

Whether it's experimenting with teen drinking, sexual activity or contemplating an embarrassing round of truth or dare, you can help your child develop a strong mental and emotional constitution to weather the storm of popularity pressure. "Providing a stable support network is the first step in overcoming peer pressure," says Diana Derby, a child advocate specialist in Crystal Lake, Ill. "Kids need to know they have options to the pressured choices they face among their peers."

Maintaining open lines of communication with your child helps them make clear and safe choices. Talking about the circumstances and decisions you faced as a teen are helpful, but listening objectively to his scenarios will give you valuable insight into your child's life. Understanding what he views as important will provide a starting point. Whether making the football team or cheerleading squad or being invited to a party or dance is the priority, it's important to understand what your child is attempting to accomplish socially.

Your participation is important. If your daughter's looking to replace her junior high look with one that's more mature and suited to high school, you're a more stable adviser to help her apply make-up than a friend helping her in the bathroom between classes. Derby also recommends talking to your inquisitive child about the tastes, effects and consequences of alcohol to satisfy some curiosities he might otherwise explore as a result of pressure from friends. "Be honest about the consequences of decisions he might make out of peer pressure to fit in," she says.

Know the Options

Children battling the pressure to be popular need a positive support structure. Dr. Cheryl Browne-Ojei of Kaiser Hospital in Harbor City, Calif., works to provide at-risk children a safe haven to express themselves while feeling they belong to a group of their peers. She helps children build their self-esteem through positive situations and examples.

Giving a child who feels he or she doesn't fit in the chance to positively impact a situation helps their confidence soar. They'll be more likely to stand up for themselves at school or sports practice. Teachers like Maurin have seen that children who exude high self-esteem and confidence in their decision to not give into pressure often become "founding fathers" of their own social group.

The opportunity to gain support from extended family members and friends also boosts his esteem and resilience to pressure. Having the option to shoot hoops with an older brother and his friends from college gives your teen an appealing "out" to participating in a drinking contest all in the name of fitting in.

Encourage him to pursue hobbies, sports interests or creative outlets where he'll meet peers with similar interests. Sometimes the chance to spend time talking with a buddy about the round of weekend football games or attending dance class with a friend helps teens find their way through the pressure.

If you take a frightening trip back in time to your days in junior high and high school, you'll remember how vital it felt to belong to a group – whichever group that happened to be. Those insecurities and social anxieties are what teens and tweens still experience today, and recognizing that will help you help your child cope with the pressure to be popular.

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