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The Case Against Popularity
If you've ever hoped your young teen or tween
would be welcomed into the so-called popular crowd—irrefutably the coolest,
best-looking, and socially admired kids in school—you're certainly not alone.
Many parents think popular kids are the happiest kids. Who wouldn't want that? In
fact, many mothers and fathers today rely on social inclusion and busyness as a primary
indication their kids are doing well. Plus, any parents who remember their own adolescent
longings to be part of the in-crowd probably want their kids to avoid similar pain. Seeing
teens and tweens texting on their phones, making plans, and going out reassures us they're
well-adjusted and on the right track. Or does it?
For years, I've been seeing that popular teens
have their own, perhaps more subtle and less detectable, yet just as significant social
challenges. Although they're not at home alone as often on Saturday nights monitoring the
mobile updates of their partying classmates, they struggle to navigate the pressures,
choices, internal conflicts, and limitations presented by being in the cool crowd. Recently
published research now indicates even greater concerns. As it turns out, early popularity
can be truly damaging in the long run. Psychologist Joseph P. Allen of the University of
Virginia, lead author of a new 10-year study of socially precocious kids (from age 13 to 23),
is quoted in the NY Times as saying, "The fast-track kids didn't turn out O.K."
Knowing what happened to these once-popular, much
envied teens and tweens—and why—can be extremely helpful in understanding your
own kids, their social status, and the choices they make in their friendships and activities.
More important, this information can change your thinking about what your teens and tweens
should do in their social lives and shape how you guide them.
Popularity is Intoxicating
Being cool can seem like great fun. Unlike the kids
who are in no rush to grow up, who may still enjoy running around in their backyards with
their friends and playing board games with their parents, popular kids push the bounds of
precocity. Their premature rush into adulthood is what psychologists call "pseudomaturity."
According to researchers, these young teens typically seek out physically attractive friends;
have more frequent, emotionally intense, and sexually exploring romantic relationships; and
dabble in minor delinquency. These kids are often first to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes,
cut classes, shoplift, and be sexual. In fact, it is their daring to take risks, including
illegal ones, that catapults them into the social stratosphere by impressing their less
Those in awe of pseudomature kids often experience
pangs of envy and self-denigration. They believe if only they were included in the popular
group, their insecurities would instantly disappear. No longer would they need to stress out
about who they're sitting with in the cafeteria or what, if anything, they're doing this
weekend. They fantasize that having a ready-made friendship group would automatically give
them a ticket to all social events. With these beliefs, many teens and tweens go to great
lengths to attract the attention and approval of fast-track kids.
A college student who recently came in to explore
her concerns about fitting in socially, for example, recalled her three-year campaign as a
young teen at summer camp to bunk with the popular girls. She now questions whether her need
for the security of a new friendship group caused her to repeat this behavior when choosing
which college sorority to pledge last year.
It's Hard to Maintain
Once this coveted status is attained, though, the
relief may be short-lived. Many teens talk about their acceptance in the popular group
feeling tenuous. They're on their guard to please—or at least to avoid
annoying—the group's unofficial leaders, who thrive on the admiration and fear of their
members. Many teens describe feeling intimidated by popular girls who are highly critical of
those who don't pass muster and periodically expel them from the group.
This threat makes teens and tweens self-conscious
about how they're viewed by peers and hyper-alert for signs their outfits, comments, and
contributions are met with anything but approval. Loyalty to the group can also impose
restrictions. Once they're embraced by the pseudomature, they often hesitate to hang out with
old friends or pursue relationships with new kids the popular group would see as babyish or
uncool. Distancing themselves from previous friendships usually elicits ambivalence, guilt,
conflict, and sometimes criticism. Ironically, they have fewer rather than more social
The Price of Popularity
In my practice, I see teens and tweens expending
lots of energy to befriend kids they think will smooth their entry into the popular crowd.
Eager to please, some become overly compliant or tolerate being treated poorly. Others adopt
a style of clothing or become desperate to have a specific brand of sneakers, jeans, or
accessory. Not a few aspiring-to-be-popular girls and boys imitate the lingo, mannerisms,
and musical tastes of the fast crowd. Although it is normal for kids this age to try on
different personas, those who obsess about being popular may focus excessively on external
emblems of who they are rather than internal, more authentic senses of themselves.
Another concern is the emphasis on superficial
criteria for friendships rather than qualities that build healthy relationships. Many teens
speak of feeling not quite right in the popular group, particularly when they feel obligated
to condone attitudes or behaviors that make them uncomfortable. Liz, the girl who spent three
years insinuating herself with the popular girls at camp, became disillusioned as soon as she
joined their bunk. "Actually," she told me, "I found I didn't really like them very much. I
was much happier being friends with the girls who weren't that cool."
The Downside of Pseudomaturity
According to the new study, by high school the
social status of pseudomature middle school students plummeted and they began struggling in
many ways. Ten years later, at age 23, they were having difficulties with intimate
relationships. As young adults, they had a 45% greater rate of alcohol and marijuana use and
were 22% more likely to be engaged in criminal activities such as theft and assault.
Researchers attribute their dysfunction to persistent efforts to impress their peers with
ever more extreme behaviors, which no longer are viewed positively. What's cool in middle
school isn't so admired in high school. But the mentality of kids who were popular early on
never changed. Psychologists theorize that these young people were socially stunted by chasing
popularity; they missed opportunities to develop skills for forming loyal, supportive, and
close friendships later on.
How Parents Can Help
Given these compelling findings, you might challenge
your assumptions about what it means for kids to be popular. No matter what you experienced as
a young teen, think twice before you want your sons or daughters to be on the social fast-track.
It's better for them to grow up at a pace appropriate for their true age and level of maturity
so they can build healthy relationships and develop lasting self-confidence. These strategies
can help guide them:
Do: Encourage kids to think about what qualities they look for in a friend (e.g., similar
interests, honesty, loyalty)
Don't: Condone teens and tweens ditching old friends for more appealing invitations
Do: Convey the message that kids should be in no rush to grow up
Don't: Steer them to social activities before they are ready (e.g., Despite the girls'
discomfort and reluctance, several mothers urged their underclass daughters to accept older boys'
invitations to senior prom)
Do: Encourage teens and tweens to find their own tastes in clothes and music
Don't: Violate your family values and deplete your budget to buy coveted items
Do: Help kids to maintain childhood and family friendships, which are often protected from
issues of school popularity
Don't: Suggest your teens and tweens befriend specific peers you see as socially
Do: Encourage age-appropriate social activities (watching movies, pizza or pool parties,
bowling, softball games, roller or ice skating, etc.) by inviting kids and providing food
Don't: Bury your head in the sand if your child asks to hang out at unsupervised homes
Do: Permit rites of passage (e.g., wearing makeup, boy-girl parties, one-on-one dating, etc.)
only when both you and your child feel comfortable and as prepared as possible
Don't: Cave into emotional blackmail ("If I say no, she said I'll be ruining her life" or
"If I don't let him go, he'll be a social outcast")
Remember, we convey even more to kids through our everyday
reactions, the questions we ask, and our off-hand comments. If your young teen or tween is home on a
Friday night, don't assume that's a bad thing. It may be that your child was invited to the dance or
party "everyone" is attending, but wisely decided not to go. Rather than presuming they're feeling
lonely or rejected—and urging them to go out and be more social—bring out the teen-friendly
snacks, download a family movie, and count your blessings.
Please Note: If you're concerned about a teen or tween who is in the popular group, check out
next month's newsletter for help!