Helping Your Teenager Cope with Cliques
Practical dos and don'ts to navigate the often stressful social scene.
When your teenager enters high school, his or her social landscape changes dramatically. During elementary school your child related to most of his or her classmates on a one-to-one basis. Now your child must contend with the group dynamics of class cliques and subgroups. As a result, s/he may be confronted with any or all of the following challenges:
1. Social standing. Your child has a group of friends. They study, shop, play sports and mostly just "hang out" together. Your child identifies with this group and is identified as a member of this group by the rest of the class. All of that is positive. A major source of stress for your child, however, is that your child sees him/herself near the bottom of the hierarchy of the group. His/her suggestions or jokes are ignored or even disparaged by the other members, which drastically undermines his/her self esteem.
2. Social rejection. Your child was included among a group of friends. Recently, however, your child has been shunned by the group. This may have occurred suddenly because of a particular episode, or gradually, over time. The rejection may have been communicated directly ("We don't want you to come") or more subtly by leaving your child out of the communication loop.
3. Social isolation. Your child never managed to break into any group in the class. S/he does not feel accepted in any group and feels too shy and/or inadequate to work his/her way into any of the cliques in class.
4. Social rivalry. Your child is well established in a sub group within the class. His/her membership in that social circle is not threatened or challenged in any way. The problem is that your child feels at a distinct disadvantage at school because s/he belongs to a low status clique. "It's no big deal to be part of my group because everyone considers us the losers! I'm even embarrassed to be associated with the other kids I'm friendly with."
If your child is experiencing any one of these problems, s/he is probably having a very difficult time focusing on school work in class or at home. (S)he is likely to be quite unhappy and may even be depressed. Consequently, your child could become school avoidant, looking for excuses and opportunities to stay home.
WHAT PARENTS CANNOT DO
In spite of how much you would like to help your children navigate the choppy seas of high school social pressures, you must keep in mind that you cannot make friends for them.
When I was in fourth grade, Mr. Fried walked onto my school bus before it headed home and made the following announcement: "Good afternoon, children. My name is Mr. Fried and this is my son, Josh. He just entered the second grade today and from now on, he will be going on this bus. I hope you will all become his friends. Thank you."
Imagine if this happened to Josh when he was in eleventh grade. Mortifying!
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
There are some important steps parents can take to help their children cope with the stress and anxiety generated by high school social pressure.
1. Validate your child's feelings. Parents sometimes think their job is to downplay all of their children's worries and fears. This is a huge mistake. If you minimize your child's concerns about his/her social standing among his/her friends, for example, you will be dealing a body blow to his/her self esteem.
Acknowledge the seriousness of your child's concern. "It must be hard to go to school every day, when you feel so unpopular." This will help your child feel understood and not so alone.
2. Help your child to see the larger picture by focusing on his/her social successes and strengths. "Didn't you tell me everyone liked the funny story you told them yesterday during lunch?"
3. Encourage your child to think proactively. "Let's talk about what you think you could do that might improve the situation. Why don't we make a plan of action, just for this week, and then we'll see how it works out?"
4. Help your child set realistic goals. If your child feels discouraged because s/he is not as popular as the wealthier, more attractive, outgoing and athletic members of the class, s/he needs to adjust his/her standards. We shouldn't need to be liked or admired by everyone in order to feel happy and content with ourselves. And our self satisfaction should be more a function of our own self esteem rather than the opinions of others.
5. Universalize the pain and suffering. Let your children know that they are not alone in their misery. Other members of the class may be secretly complaining to their parents, too, right now about the social pressures at school. But even if they are not, these are struggles which we all need to deal with in our lives. Sharing some of your own ordeals, for example, can be quite soothing to the ears of your teenage children.
A LESSON FOR LIFE
The most profound lesson about teenage social pressures I learned at the end of twelfth grade. Throughout high school, I and my two close friends had commiserated with each other about our being left out of the various cliques in our class. Then, one day in June of my senior year, I was having a casual conversation with a classmate about the social dynamics of our grade.
"Yeah, and you and your two buddies never let anyone else into your clique!" he said with a mixture of resentment and resignation.
I was completely blown away. He thought we were a clique? Just the idea was mind boggling! For four years my two friends and I had thought of ourselves as outsiders. And here was someone confessing that he had viewed the three of us as insiders. My social standing in the class, therefore, was not nearly as low as I had perceived it to be. Even now, as I recollect that scene from long ago, I still shudder with the shock of that original revelation.