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Lunch Table Wars at School

Help Your Preteen Survive Stress From School Lunch Table Wars

It begins innocently enough. A group of girls have a regular table in the cafeteria. They've been sitting together since the beginning of the school year. One day, for no particular reason, one of the girls decides she doesn't want to sit next to another girl, so she puts her books on the chair next to her. "This seat is saved," says the girl, then she turns her back to the other girl. There are no other seats left at the table. The shunned girl is forced to find another place to sit – nearly impossible in the territorial cafeteria.

With feelings hurt, the shunned girl takes out her frustration by inventing and spreading a rumor about the girl who saved the seat. The other girls at the lunch table end up taking sides, and the latest lunch table war erupts. At best, it'll be a typical adolescent spat, and will blow over in a few days. At worst, the argument escalates at school and ends up with detention or even expulsion.

Why It Happens

"Lunch seems to be the most concentrated social time at school," says Eleanor Chase* of Bryn Mawr, Pa. "Lunch time seems fairly unstructured."

Anne Rambo, associate professor of family therapy at Nova Southeastern University, says that lunch time is a choice time for inflicting interpersonal pain.

"It's a more dangerous world and a more confusing one, with fewer protections for young girls than in generations past," says Rambo. "One way I have noticed they deal with their own insecurities is to gravitate to a girl who appears strong and tough and without feelings. The dominant girl who appears confident and ruthless gathers other girls around her and gets viewed as 'popular.' But it's not because she's so loveable!"

In middle school, the lunch table groupings are formed early, and while it may not be a clique, it also isn't an open group. Teen movies and television shows get the socialization of the lunch table just right – kids can't sit at any table, with any group of kids.

The lunch table isn't always about friendship. In some ways, it is a networking tool. Sometimes the kids at the lunch table share a common interest. Sometimes kids end up at a lunch table because they want to be seen with a certain group. In general, kids understand the way the social dynamics of the lunch room work, and breaking those social norms – sitting at another table – often happens at the urgings of others, like a parent or other kids making a dare.

Boys vs. Girls

The problems usually arise between members of the lunch table group, normally between girls rather than boys.

"Girls tend to have a much more complex, developed, rigid social hierarchy," says Rambo. "Boys' associations are looser, more flexible and less governed by status. The one exception to that is a boy who is perceived as effeminate or less than manly. Boys can be cruel and scapegoat one of their own, certainly. But in general, boys spend less time and energy on these social hierarchies."

Mary Burns* of Chateauguay, Quebec, agrees. As the mother of two boys and a girl, she's found that her sons are much more laid back about their social lives, while her daughter has had roller coaster moments with friendships.

These roller coaster moments are what cause parents to wonder why girls are so cruel. However, the reaction of a girl spurned by her peers is as important as the act itself. Adolescent girls are known to overreact and blow simple things (such as saving a seat) out of proportion. On the other hand, girls will use the lunch table – that unstructured time – as a way to assert their power (such as not allowing a regular at the table to sit with the group).

"There is a growing body of research on what researchers call relational aggression," says Dr. Kerrie Laguna, assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College. "While physical aggression peaks in the preschool period and declines for most children as their verbal skills develop, relational aggression increases toward adolescence. It involves harming the relationships of others – gossip, rumors, exclusion – and many studies have found it to be more prevalent among girls. Bullying behaviors, as well, peak in the middle-school period."

Advice to "Survive"

Rambo gives this advice to parents to help guide their children through the lunch table wars:

  • Talk about it. Let your child know you are aware of the social hierarchies and the struggles. Often young teens are amazed to hear their parents went through this, too.
  • Be very clear about your own values. Get rid of any lingering wish for your child to be "popular," to live up to your own happy memories of high school popularity or to live down your own painful memories. What you want is not for your child to be "popular," but for your child to have a few genuine friends and to be herself. Tell her that, and encourage her not to take these little dramas completely seriously. Let her know you disapprove of bullying and would not like to see her act like that.

  • Talk to the school administration if the problems become daily or severe enough that the child starts disliking school. Often it helps to have more adults in the lunch room, as volunteer helpers and mentors. Some schools have also tried assigning and rotating seating, just to break up the groups. Having club meetings at lunch is another way to get the kids sitting in natural interest groups. Don't assume there is nothing the school can do; there can and should be steps that can be taken.

Eleanor Chase says that so far, her daughter occasionally mentions conversations that occur at lunch but always in a positive way. But Chase has just begun life as a middle-school parent. "I might be eating my words in a year," she says.

*Names have been changed.

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