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Helping Kids Cope With Cliques

While groups of friends let kids hang out with other people, cliques have set rules about who’s “in” and who’s “out” and are focused on status. Cliques can make navigating friendships and school tough, especially in the middle school years, but there’s plenty parents can do to offer support.

How Can I Help My Child Handle a Clique?

Some kids are inside a clique. Others are on the outside. And some may be in today and out tomorrow.

If your child seems upset or suddenly spends time alone and is usually very social, ask about it. Here are some tips:

  • Talk about your own experiences. Share your own experiences of school — cliques have been around for a long time!
  • Help put rejection in perspective. Remind your child of times they’ve been angry with parents, friends, or siblings — and how quickly things can change.
  • Talk about social dynamics. Explain how healthy friendships differ from unhealthy friendships. Teach kids how to identify friendships that are one-sided or fake. Also explain that people are often judged by the way they look, act, or dress. But people who act mean and put others down often do so because they lack self-confidence and try to cover it up by maintaining control.
  • Explain that clique leaders can be insecure. The leader in a clique probably worries as much — or even more — about being popular and accepted as the outsiders do.
  • Find stories they can relate to. Many books, TV shows, and movies show outsiders triumphing in the face of rejection, with strong messages about the importance of being true to your own nature and the value of being a good friend. For kids in elementary school, books like “Blubber” by Judy Blume show how quickly cliques can change. Older kids and teens might relate to movies like “Mean Girls,” “Angus,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Clueless.”
  • Foster out-of-school interests. Get kids involved in extracurricular activities (if they aren’t already), like art classes, sports, martial arts, language study, or volunteering. These kinds of activities give them a chance to create another social group and learn new skills.

What if My Child Is in a Clique?

If your child is part of a clique and one of the kids who tease and reject others, it’s important to address that right away. With popular TV shows from talent contests to reality series glorifying rude behavior, it can be an uphill battle for families to promote kindness, respect, and compassion.

Discuss the role of power and control in friendships and try to get to the heart of why your child feels compelled to be in that position. Discuss who is in and who is out, and what happens when kids are out (are they ignored, shunned, bullied?). Remind your child that there’s a difference between spending time with a few friends and leaving others out on purpose. Challenge kids to think and talk about whether they’re proud of the way they act in school.

Ask teachers, guidance counselors, or other school officials for their perspective on what’s going on in and out of class. They might be able to tell you about any programs the school has to address cliques and help kids with differences get along.

How Can I Encourage Healthy Friendships?

You can help kids have healthy friendships and not get too caught up in cliques by advising them to:

Find the right fit — don’t just fit in. Encourage kids to think about what they value and are interested in, and how those things fit in with the group. Ask questions like:

  • “What’s the main reason you want to be part of the group?” 
  • “What compromises will you have to make? Are they worth it?” 
  • “What would you do if the group leader insisted you act mean to other kids or do something you don’t want to do?” 
  • “When does it change from fun and joking around to teasing and bullying?”

Stick to your likes. If your child has always loved to play the piano but suddenly wants to drop it because it’s deemed “uncool,” discuss ways to help resolve this. Encourage kids to participate in activities that they enjoy and that build their confidence.

Keep social circles open and diverse. Encourage kids to be friends with people they like and enjoy from different settings, backgrounds, ages, and interests. Model this yourself as much as you can with different ages and types of friends and acquaintances.

Focusing too much on whether your children are friends with the “right” kids or on the “right” teams or clubs can make them worry about status. Concentrate on quality friendships instead.

Speak out and stand up. If they’re feeling worried or pressured by what’s happening in the cliques, encourage your kids to stand up for themselves or others who are being cast out or bullied. Encourage them not to participate in anything that feels wrong, whether it’s a practical joke or talking about people behind their backs.

Take responsibility for your actions. Encourage sensitivity to others and not just going along with a group. Remind kids that a true friend respects their opinions, interests, and choices, no matter how different they are. Acknowledge that it can be hard to stand out, but that in the end kids are responsible for what they say and do.

Look at the big picture too. As hard as cliques might be to deal with now, things can change quickly. What’s more important is making true friends — people they can confide in, laugh with, and trust. And the real secret to being “popular” — in the truest sense of the word — is for them to be the kind of friend they’d like to have: respectful, fair, supportive, caring, trustworthy, and kind.