What Makes Popular Kids Popular?
Helping Your Child Cope with School Cliques
Get information about cliques and your child's social world.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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TV shows and movies often take us back to the turbulent world of cliques, groups of boys and girls who hang out with each other almost exclusively. Cliques are not necessarily bad, but your child's experience both within as well as outside these social circles can be intense.
"Cliques serve a function to help children feel like they are fitting in," says Andrew Harper, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, and medical director at the UT Harris County Psychiatric Center.
Dr. Harper explains that forming cliques is a natural part of moving into adolescence. And not every clique is going to hurt your child. "Some cliques may motivate kids to perform in school, if your child is part of the [academically gifted] clique. And cliques might influence them to do other positive things," says Harper.
Helping Your Child Thrive in a Clique World
Your child has certain social and personal needs that may be met by cliques. Here are some tips for understanding the dynamics:
- Positive roles.Harper stresses that the need for belonging and acceptance is powerful. That's why it is a good idea to help your children understand the positive role they can play in their own clique, even if they don't belong to a clique at the top of the school hierarchy.
- Understand strengths.Every child has strengths, interests, and talents that can help them survive and thrive in school cliques. Help your child find groups with similar values or interests, perhaps by coordinating after-school activities such as sports, faith, or scouts programs.
- Reach out.If your child just doesn't seem to fit in, is withdrawing, or shows signs of fear or anxiety about school, consider an underlying depression or anxiety problem. Seek help from a medical professional, counselor, or psychiatrist.
When to Worry About Cliques
"The problem becomes when the sole purpose of the clique is to exercise power — by excluding and being mean to others. That creates an adverse dynamic for those who are on the outside, but even inside it can create the anxiety of 'What if I get kicked out?'" says Harper.
In addition to the power and influence within the clique, your child is probably also dealing with a hierarchy among cliques. "Usually for guys, the jocks and preps tend to be at the top; for girls, [it's] cheerleaders or somebody who is in the public eye of the school," says Harper.
Most young people will have times when they are part of a clique and times when they are not. If your child's clique has thrown them out or simply fallen apart, you can talk to your child about this painful learning experience. Just remember to:
- Be strategic.Focus on emphasizing and building on your child's strengths.
- Discuss coping strategies.Remind your child life is full of people who may not like you, but you have to find ways to get back into the swing of life.
"The kids that really have a lot of difficulty are those who feel like they don't fit in anywhere," says Harper. Often, those same children get involved in the "bad" clique with kids who might be disruptive or use drugs.
If that's the case, Harper recommends looking for other ways your child can find acceptance. This can be tough, he says, because your child might sincerely believe this clique is the only place where he can gain recognition. Highlighting your child's strengths, however, and encouraging involvement in activities that celebrate those strengths can help offset this type of belief.
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