Coping with cliques
The jocks. The nerds. The popular girls. Everyone who has ever attended school knows about cliques—social groups that are so often a source of angst and conflict in the lives of children and adolescents.
Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist, former seventh-grade teacher and author of the book Best Friends, Worst Enemies, argues that parents don't understand the importance of friendships in childhood and the deep emotional impact these relationships have on their children's lives.

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.
Dr. Thompson warns parents about meddling in their children's social lives. Instead, he encourages them to be involved, to listen to their children and to have compassion for their social issues. And parents should recognize that their own past social experiences can impact their children's social success.
  • 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.
However appealing it might seem, Dr. Thompson says that you can't pick your child's friends, because friendships are based on chemistry. Instead of forbidding friendships with classmates who experiment with drugs and alcohol, for example, a parent should tell his or her child, "I hold you accountable for your behavior."

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!
According to Dr. Thompson, asking your children's teachers is crucial to understanding your child's social behavior. "I'm distressed that parents ask so rarely about their child's social life," Dr. Thompson says. If you find that your child is in trouble socially, you can make an alliance with the teacher and guidance counselor to work on helping your child.

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?

Most social problems children experience, such as feeling left out or switching social groups, are very normal, according to Dr. Thompson. In fact, these situations can help the child understand treachery, loyalty and friendship. Your child does not need you to step in and try to make things better—your involvement could make things worse.

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.


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