Coping with Cliques
Dr. Thompson believes that, by nature, people are social beings who need to be part of a group. In a group setting, children learn values such as loyalty, leadership and what it means to be a good friend. And, there is power in numbers—groups are more influential than an individual alone.
About 80 percent of children are part of a social group at school. Most groups begin forming around fourth grade, but some can develop as early as kindergarten. By eighth grade, most children have established strict boundaries of the group.
While becoming a part of a clique is appealing, it can also have its dangers. Sometimes members of a group are not really friends; rather, they rely on each other for an identity. There is often a ringleader who defines the boundaries and has the power to influence others to do good or bad.
According to Dr. Thompson, a child may be a "good person" as an individual, but group dynamics lead to what is known in psychology as a "risky shift." This change happens when children get together in a group and devise a mischievous plan that they wouldn't be able to come up with on their own as individuals. Even though a child may feel bad insulting or hurting other children, he or she might be influenced by the power dynamics of the group.
- Don't assume your children are having the same problems that you had as a child.
- Realize that your own fears for your children are not necessarily their fears.
- Don't "interview" for pain by asking questions like, "Who was mean to you today?" Instead, ask, "Who did you talk to today?"
- Check with other parents who see your child in action to get a sense of how he or she behaves outside of the home.
- If your child is popular, educate him or her on how to be a good leader.
If you are upset about something your child did, don't attack his or her friends—monitor your own child's behavior. Children resent it when their parents think of them as "angels" and their friends as "devils."
Get to know the parents of your child's friends, so that you can talk to each other and supervise better. Adolescents need monitoring for reasons like the "risky shift." Remember, even good kids need monitoring.
Invite your child's friends over to your house so you can get to know them. And, remember, the more they're under your supervision, the better behaved they'll be!
Some key questions to ask your child's teachers include:
- Do you know something about where my child stands in the social hierarchy?
- Is my child getting along with other children?
- Does my child have a friend?
- Is my child a good leader?
- Is my child accepting of other children?
However, a child who is ostracized or rejected—neglected in every category—may need adult intervention and support. The children chronically at the bottom 20 percent of the social hierarchy are at risk for mental health problems. They may never be able to make a friend, year after year, and need you to step in. You should talk to your child's teacher, and you may need to get your child into a social skills group or even psychotherapy if you suspect he or she is depressed.