Starting in middle school, and even earlier, tweens and teens can spend a lot of time worrying about popularity. As the social pecking order starts to take shape, many are naturally worried about where they fit in. If we are not careful, this anxiety can become a parent’s problem, too.
We all want our kids to have friends and to feel accepted, but at what cost? What does it really mean to be “popular” anyway? Your Teen interviewed several experts on the topic and rounded up some of their best tips and advice for parents and teens on the subject of popularity. Read on!
Tips on Popularity for Parents
1. Accept that social life and social complications are a big part of a teen’s life.
For teens, every aspect of their identity is tied to their social life. Even activities that seem unrelated to friendship, like sports or academics, can affect their social standing. It’s developmentally normal for teens to allow their social life—and their worries about it—to take up more of their time and attention than when they were younger.
2. Understand that everything feels bigger to teens, and that’s okay.
Teens have heightened emotional responses. You may feel protective and inclined to react. Instead, support your teens by helping them work out their own problems and teaching them to take challenges in stride.
3. Appreciate your teen’s social savvy.
Teens likely understand their social world better than you. For example, you may encourage your teen to be friends with a particular teenager, but that kid might not be the best friend fit, whether it’s because the other kid doesn’t share your teen’s sense of humor or because the kid isn’t as kind as you think they are.
4. Remember that it’s not about you.
If your teen likes their friends and they are a positive peer group, you should not be disappointed if they are not the group you would choose. Your teen does not need to feel your frustration because they didn’t make the “in” group (whatever that is!).
5. Sympathize when your teen says, “I want to be popular.”
It’s normal to want to feel included and liked. First, offer sympathy, but next, remind them about the importance of genuine friends versus being popular. Popularity isn’t the same as friendship—where friendship is about connection, popularity is about social standing. Which are they really seeking, and why?
6. Define the elements of a good friendship.
Help your teen understand that friendship has kindness at its center. When teens worry excessively about popularity, kindness can go out the window, and old, less-cool friends may be discarded. Besides valuing kindness, remind your teenager to look for peers who share their interests, sense of humor, and ideas of fun.
7. Encourage healthy friendships.
Often, teens put themselves on the periphery of the popular kids, hoping to get included. Encourage your teen to avoid these situations, which can lead to shallow connections and risky behaviors.
8. Empathize when your teen feels mistreated.
First offer empathy, and then gently encourage your teenager in handling the problem. You could say, for example, “Ouch, that must have hurt. What do you think you will say to her?”
9. Intervene with bullying.
Bullying—an ongoing pattern of mistreatment of harassment that negatively impacts your teen—is different than the growing pains of fitting in. You should take bullying seriously and address it.
10. Identify dangerous situations that require parental intervention.
If your teen is hanging with a wild crowd, try to understand why your teen is making poor choices. Are they seeking popularity? Did an old friend become a partier, and your teenager doesn’t want to lose the friendship? Set limits on unsafe behaviors, but understanding where your teenager is coming from and expressing empathy may help them to accept that those limits are set with kindness and love.
11. Don’t impose arbitrary limits that may hurt your teen socially.
Try not to set your teen up for teasing because of an arbitrary rule, for example, no shaving until 10th grade. Look at your limits and talk to other parents to understand age-appropriate norms.
12. Set limits for use of technology.
Even though computers and smartphones are essential in today’s social world, you can still have house rules, like no phone at the dinner table or in the bedroom at night. But, if you don’t allow certain technology at all, you will impact your child’s ability to participate in today’s social scene.
13. Recognize the downside of popularity.
Popularity, particularly in middle school, is a double-edged sword. Kids who are popular in middle school also tend to be more likely to engage in risky behavior, like substance abuse and skipping school.