Left Out of the IN Crowd

Dealing with School Cliques

By Michelle Bourg

Things are going well: your children are enrolled in a good school, doing well in their classes and seem to be happy. Then one day, your second-grader comes home in tears after finding out she was the only one not invited to Susie’s birthday party. Or your usually gregarious high-schooler becomes withdrawn and is noncommittal when asked about his friends. They’re experiencing something virtually every child encounters at some point during their school years: cliques.

The fact that kids hurt others by shunning them is unfortunate, but it’s also likely inevitable; humans are social animals, with an innate need to define themselves in relation to a social group. As kids are growing up, it’s sometimes a bumpy road as they learn to define themselves outside of their first social group— their family.

Cliques differ from friend groups in being based not on mutual interests and values, but instead on a sense of insecurity. Unsure of their own social standing, members band together to maintain an appearance of popularity, with leaders who determine who and what is “in” and “out.” They often create a vortex of peer pressure that sucks others in, prompting even unattached individuals to behave in ways they wouldn’t on their own, such as mocking or gossiping about a friend. And even well-liked kids who befriend those less popular or who “don’t follow the rules” aren’t immune to being subjected to gossip or shunned by them.

Cliques are particularly prevalent during middle school and junior high, when pre-teens are focused on establishing their place in the social order. However, parents and educators are increasingly reporting exclusionary behavior as early as preschool, as children compete for playmates’ attention at earlier ages. While girls are most often associated with cliques, boys are also affected by them, although usually not until high school. The good news is that generally, most of these secret clubs have faded by the time high school graduation rolls around.

What should you do when your child finds him or herself left out of “the in crowd?” While rejection always stings, there are some actions you can take to ensure that your child maintains his or her self-esteem and is able to forge genuine friendships:

Be Present For Your Child: Offer advice if asked, but most of the time, what kids are looking for (and need most) is just for you to be there for them and to lend a listening ear.

Share Your Experiences: If cliques affected you as a kid, show your child that it’s a universal experience by talking about it. Also, books like “Harriet the Spy” or movies like “The Breakfast Club” are entertaining ways to convey messages of self-esteem and empathy.

Discuss The Social Dynamics: Explain the motives behind exclusion and point out that members of cliques who don’t conform to the group’s unwritten “rules” often find themselves among the excluded.

Talk About Times That Your Child May Have Disliked Someone: Remind them that not everyone will be their best friend, and also that feelings often change.

Encourage Outside Activities: Getting involved in an activity that he or she is interested in, whether at school or outside of it, will help your child meet new friends and improve his or her confidence, something that in turn attracts friends.

Respect, But Don’t Get Caught Up In, Your Child’s Need To Be Accepted: Don’t trivialize your child’s pain, but also don’t make it your mission to fix things by trying to buy your child’s way into a group with things like clothes or the “right” set of expensive headphones, and don’t express any distress you’re feeling by speaking badly of other children or their parents in front of your child. Model respectful behavior, and remember that children quickly identify attempts to curry favor for what they are.

Talk To Your Child’s Teacher: If your child has difficulty making or keeping friends, talk to a teacher that sees him or her regularly to get a sense of social dynamics in the peer group and how your child interacts with others. It’s possible your child is unwittingly exhibiting behaviors that antagonize others, such as boastfulness or attention seeking, that can be modified with gentle coaching.

Monitor Online Activity: With the internet, issues no longer stop at the front door. Being aware of your child’s online activity and social media accounts may offer clues to what’s going on at school.

When It’s Your Child Doing The Excluding: If you find that your child is part of a group that is engaged in exclusionary behavior, it’s important not to be confrontational, as this will likely result in only reinforcing the pattern as your child tries to assert his or her independence from you and strengthen ties to the peer group. Instead, find ways to work themes of empathy and inclusion into your conversations: Ask about times when your child was hurt or excluded by others, and how that made him or her feel. Ask how they imagine others feel when this happens to them.

Another thing you can do is to help your child expand his or her social circle. Encourage him or her to take part in activities, sports or classes that will involve interacting with new kids. (Always a good idea, even when things are rosy with your child’s social scene). Also, while it doesn’t work to try to actively break up a clique, you may want to talk to a teacher about mixing things up in the classroom by changing seat arrangements or assigning different pairs or groups to work together on projects.

It’s never too soon to discuss values with your child and model behaviors of healthy self-esteem, empathy, and inclusiveness. Encouraging kids to remember the Golden Rule will go a long way toward helping them negotiate cliques throughout their lives, whether they find themselves “in” or “out.”

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