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When Your Teen is Popular
Last months' newsletter, The Case Against
Popularity, was probably reassuring to parents of kids who aren't on the fast track
or who struggle to make friends. But if your teen or tween has achieved that lofty,
often-envied status, reading about the pitfalls of teenage popularity may have made you
anxious. Until then, you might have been proud of how grown up your tween acts and saw
his full social life as proof of good adjustment. But with this new information, you may
be questioning whether trouble could be lurking. Could your daughter actually be
pseudomature? Are your son's lies signs of minor delinquency? Are the alcohol fumes you
thought you smelled while chauffeuring last weekend evidence of substance abuse? If
teenage popularity leads to problems ten years down the road, what can you do now to
prevent them? Here are some considerations and strategies.
Is Something Wrong?
It's important not to make assumptions about
kids' happiness and well-being based on their popularity. There are plenty of content,
socially-skilled teens who rarely go to parties or invite kids over, and just as many
highly troubled or miserable teens whose social lives are a whirlwind of activity. It's
also unhelpful to gauge how well your kids are doing by what you were like as a teenager
(good or bad); it's a gross understatement to say times have changed. You can't even judge
your kids based on the teens portrayed in popular media. Although some TV shows and movies
are remarkably astute, most don't capture the range of experiences of average, real life
people. And you also can't compare them to their friends. You know only what these boys
and girls want you to see, which is hardly the whole picture.
So if you shouldn't base judgments about your
kids on their friends, cultural stereotypes, the characters in movies and TV, or your own
experiences, what's left? The best source of information is carefully observing your child.
In my experience, attuned parents usually know when things are okay and also when they're
amiss. I see this constantly when parents seek psychoeducational testing for their kids
even after well-meaning friends, teachers, and professionals assure them they're worrying
for nothing. Although parents are rarely able to name what's not right, testing almost
always vindicates their instinct to investigate further. Trust your gut feeling to tell
you to keep looking for answers until you know what's what.
Look for Signs of Distress
Being included by popular groups doesn't
automatically make teens' insecurities disappear. Whether they're in the in-crowd or on
the outskirts, kids feel best about themselves and their social lives when they have
stable, healthy relationships. Those whose friendship groups are riddled by drama and
instability often feel tentative and unsure of their status. Sometimes they're intimidated
by the girls or boys who call the shots, who threaten overtly or in more subtle ways to be
the final arbiter of who is included in the group. Is your son overly deferential to his
close friends? Is your daughter on edge until she gets her friends' approval? Is your teen
being teased by so-called friends in ways that feel hurtful? Are they being dared to prove
themselves in some way?
Wondering about these issues—perhaps musing
aloud, if appropriate—is one way to start a conversation with your child. But if your
gentle inquiry is met with silence, be on the alert for other signs. If, for example, you
overhear your teens telling friends they've been forbidden from an activity that you know
nothing about, recognize this as an unmistakable indication they're uncomfortable with
something or someone. Rather than arguing, "But I'd definitely have let you go!" silently
applaud their resourcefulness in saving face and subtly offer empathy and support.
If you're not sure what's going on right now, you
can try to get information from trustworthy adults who know your kids well: their teachers,
their friends' parents, the youth group coordinator. If you're really concerned, a visit to
a doctor, mental health professional, or drug counselor may be in order. But be assured that
at some point kids themselves let parents know if they're having problems, either by sending
increasingly glaring signals of distress or, when they get in trouble, coming clean about
what's really been going on. Then you'll intervene in whatever ways are most appropriate.
Before you get to that point, however, let's talk about preventive strategies.
Although you don't have control over when kids
lose interest in Barbies or video games, you do influence how fast they grow up. You decide
when to give them certain responsibilities and allow rites of passage. Given how hectic and
stressful modern family life can be, some parents gladly hand off some of their own burdens
before kids are emotionally ready to handle them. Also, with this culture's worship of
precocity, it may be tempting to discourage supposedly less desirable, "immature" behavior
with comments such as "Act your age!" or "Grow up!" or "Don't be a baby."
But there is much to be said for preserving kids'
opportunities to relish the true joys of childhood as long as possible. Long after such
activities are remotely seen as "cool" by their peers, many tweens and early teens enjoy
imaginative play or board games with younger siblings, cousins, and even by themselves in
the privacy of their bedrooms. Among other reasons, they enjoy reconnecting with their more
spontaneous, relatively carefree younger selves.
• So don't throw out the ping pong table, get rid of bicycles, or assume kids will never
again play a family game of Life or Apples to Apples. Many a teen has confessed this is the
secret silver lining of being grounded.
• Establish rules for visits with opposite sex friends. Although some parents I've worked
with have allowed their middle schoolers to hang out for hours with opposite-sex friends behind
closed bedroom doors, this behavior condones, if not encourages, problematic sexual exploration.
• Be judicious about rites of passage. Make thoughtful decisions about when teens and
tweens should experience the next step—not automatically when everybody else is doing
it—whether that's getting a smart phone, having a coed sleepover, or dating one-on-one.
If it's hard for you to imagine your own child being
mean, you're in good company. But with technology, no teen is immune. Be aware of the content,
language, and tone of your tween's texts, emails, and posts on social media such as Facebook and
Instagram. Although it's easier to pretend you didn't see them (who has the time and emotional
energy for the drama?) or rationalize it's just how kids communicate with each other, it's
important to hold kids accountable. This response gives them a crystal-clear message of your
values about how they should treat others.
Dealing with "Fast" Friends
It's true that popular kids are usually the ones
testing the limits. They're the first to wear makeup, date, try sex, experiment with substances,
skip school, and dabble in cheating, shoplifting, and the like. Even reading this may make you
shudder. But what's not true is that if your teens hang out with pseudomature friends they will
surely follow suit. Many parents mistakenly assume that all teens are vulnerable to such peer
pressure. But if you don't give your kids grown-up privileges too soon, it's just as likely
they'll get vicarious excitement from a precocious friend's activities without doing those things
themselves. Opposites do attract. Also, many teens I see in therapy talk about seeing the fallout
of their friends' unfortunate choices. Although they'd never admit it to their parents (in fact,
they staunchly deny any such accusations), they're often just as worried about friends who flirt
with danger, risk tarnishing their reputations, or get into trouble.
If you have concerns, invite your teens' friends to
your home so you can get to know them better. There may well be a sweet kid underneath the
outrageous outfits, piercings, and declarations of nonconformity that take you aback. When teens'
social lives are problematic, it's wise to keep them busy with weekend jobs (e.g., regular
babysitting gigs), family plans, weekends away, sports, youth group, and summer camp. If nothing
else, providing these opportunities to make friends outside of school is a great social insurance
policy should they decide at some point that being popular isn't all it's cracked up to be.
What doesn't work? Badmouthing their friends, calling
them names, making assumptions about their drawbacks or problems based on little evidence, or
demanding that teens end friendships. The last tactic, no matter how understandable, will likely
backfire by almost guaranteeing your teen to remain close—if only to prove autonomy.
Truthfully, you can't really tell your teens who to like or with whom they should fall in love.
They have a right to their feelings; but you can set rules and standards for their
behavior—sending crystal-clear messages about illegal activities—and try to influence
their feelings gracefully and diplomatically.
Talk about Relationships
Perhaps the best way to influence teens' choices in
relationships is to discuss (please note: discuss, not lecture about) this topic, often and in
many different ways. Ask them what qualities they look for in friends. What makes a friendship
satisfying to them? Mention traits you value, such as loyalty, support, honesty, respect, and
fairness. Talk about when you think your teens should start dating, and what they need to
demonstrate (e.g., good judgment, responsibility, trustworthiness) so you'll know they're ready.
Perhaps most important, spell out how you think they should be treated in romantic
relationships—and how they should in turn behave with their partners. As hard as it is to
be specific, share with teens what you believe constitutes intimacy—emotional as well as
These strategies may not dramatically change your teens
and tweens' social status. Your kids may stick with the popular crowd. But you're encouraging
them to be more self-reflective, to think about why certain friends are appealing, and to identify
what about their friendships makes them feel good. Perhaps best of all, by demonstrating how much
you care about their social lives, empathizing with their experiences, and giving them tools to
solve interpersonal challenges, you're modeling for teens how they can expect to be treated (and
to treat others) in relationships. This in itself will go a long way toward preventing the
long-term problems of twenty-somethings who are popular as teens.