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A Place in the Popular Crowd? Helping Navigate Teen Friendships

We’ve all seen this Hollywood movie scene: lunchtime in the high school cafeteria with the popular pack holding court at one table while the wannabes loiter nearby. The jocks arm wrestle in their letterman jackets, and the nerds debate the merits of various super powers.

Also present here are the preppies, the theater geeks, the Goths, the hipsters, the band crowd, and every other stereotype. Then, there’s the teenager who doesn’t fit anywhere, and whose lunch tray is about to go flying across the floor, when the meanest (and most popular) boy in school sticks out his foot to trip him.

Sure it’s a clichéd version of the high school social order, but it’s enough to strike a chord of dread in the hearts of most parents.

We want our teenagers to fit in, we want them to make teen friends—perhaps even be popular.

The good news? For the average teenager, art does not imitate life. In fact, research shows that after a few confusing years in middle school and early high school, our teenagers tend to figure this all out. They may not end up at the popular table, but they will sit with a handful of genuine friends. That is more important for their overall social well-being.

So, why do parents of teenagers continue to fret? Well, probably because the period in which adolescents learn to navigate their social world is, to say the least, taxing. But armed with an understanding of adolescent development, plus some strategies from experts, parents can do a lot to ease the way for their child and teen friendships.

Shifting Toward Peers in Middle School

Without a doubt, middle school is the toughest time for social relationships, mostly due to developmental changes during this period. Teens look to peers—not parents—to help them understand where they fit in the social order. Though the parents may still get an earful of each day’s social ups and downs.

“Adolescents start to place a high value on what their peers think. This is a shift from early childhood, when their parents’ opinions mattered the most,” explains Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “Adolescents aren’t sure how to fit in; they’re struggling to find a peer group with whom they are comfortable.”

Compounding all this social and personal uncertainty is the fact that by middle school, an obvious popular crowd exists.

“The popular crowd creates a scenario of a closed shop. Their attitude: ‘We do the coolest stuff. We wear the coolest stuff. We look really cool. And we know what’s cool and what’s important.’ They make the other kids feel that it’s hard to infiltrate their boundaries,” explains Suzanne Schneps, a clinical psychologist in Beachwood, Ohio.

Finding a Niche in High School

Thankfully, by high school, many of the most difficult aspects of the middle school problems begin to dissipate.

“By the time most teenagers hit high school, typically by tenth grade, they are more comfortable with who they are and what they stand for,” Cordiano says. “Most teenagers have found their niche when it comes to a peer group, so there is less posturing to fit in with a group.”

“I’m not bothered by the cliquishness anymore. I’m comfortable with my group and that’s really all I care about,” sums up Sara Lewis, who recently graduated high school and will attend University of Rochester this fall.

So, if a teenager does not need to run with the popular crowd to be happy, what do they need?

The experts say that even one or two close teen friends are enough, for both middle school and high school.

“What the research shows is that it is not the amount of friends you have. What is important is having a few close friends—even one close friend you can open up to—and then some other friends to round out your social group,” Cordiano says.

Meanness is a fact of life in middle school. It’s crucial for children to have one or two friends who offer reassurance when meanness occurs. The children who truly suffer have no friends to serve as padding when a peer is mean,” says Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood .

Meanwhile, scientists are also learning that it’s the self-perception that you are liked, instead of belonging to the in-crowd at school, that leads to positive outcomes for teenagers. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Virginia interviewed more than 150 adolescents at age 13 and then again at 14. They found that the adolescents, who at 13 believed they were well liked, fared just as well as the participants who actually were rated as popular by their peers.

“Their own sense of being accepted was just as important for their outcomes,” explains Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, a researcher on the project and now a clinical psychologist in Vienna, Virginia. “They could feel accepted, but not be popular at all, and be doing just fine. They were indistinguishable from the popular kids.”

While the study did not determine what exactly makes a teenager feel well liked, McElhaney suggests that a variety of social experiences may have helped. “Their social lives are more diverse. They can have friends in a variety of different settings, like a travel soccer team, a Boy Scout troop or a part-time job, and these are friends outside of school.”

How can parents help support their adolescents as they learn to navigate their social world? The University of Virginia study suggests one important way.

Give your adolescent more than one social experience.

“Look for avenues outside of school. If kids feel comfortable and competent in relationships in other parts of their lives, that is a huge boost,” McElhaney recommends.

This is particularly the case for teenagers who may be struggling socially at school. Other options for meeting new peers can include camps, sports, and other extracurricular activities. “It’s important to help kids see all the facets of who they are in a way that is not tied into school. Maybe they are good at soccer? Maybe they like babysitting? You want to nurture those interests and that will often lead to good social connections,” Cordiano adds.

While the vast majority of teenagers will successfully negotiate their social lives, there are times when parents need to be concerned—or at least pay close attention. And one of these times is when teenagers try too hard to fit into a particular crowd.

“Maintaining a front to fit into a group can be exhausting. And losing a sense of being genuine will be a struggle,” Cordiano says. She recommends returning to the conversation about what makes a good friend. “Most kids will recognize that when they compromise who they are, they don’t feel good in the friendship.”

Of course, another red flag is turning to drugs, alcohol, or sex to gain admittance to a group. And then there are the teenagers who simply can’t connect with any of their peers.

“When your child is miserable because they have no friends, it might be time to get help,” Schneps says.

Just make sure this isn’t merely a few days of the blues. “In normal adolescence, mood fluctuates,” Damour notes. “I would look for sustained downs before seeking professional help. When teenagers complain, don’t assume they’re always looking for solutions; sometimes they just need to dump. Not sure how to respond? Ask your teens whether they want your help or just want you to listen.”

But at the end of the day, Your Teen’s experts stress that the number one goal is to support your teenager’s social journey. Even if that journey is different than your own.

Sums up Schneps: “Everyone has their own rhythm with friendships. And as long as it’s a healthy rhythm, you need to support it. Some people love having 50 friends. Other people have three good friends. There isn’t a right or wrong as long as it’s a healthy rhythm.”

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.