Like many parents trying to make sense of their children's mysterious social world, Gina Kurban isn't exactly sure what went wrong for her daughter at school. She does know her daughter went from happy to distraught, from feeling included by classmates to feeling excluded. Suddenly, what once looked like a good group of friends had become a clique -- an exclusive group of "cool kids" using their power, popularity, and status to put others down. And now, Gina's daughter was the target of their manipulative games.
"It really brought up my own memories of what it was like to not be included," says Gina, who lives in suburban Boston. "It's very difficult to see your child in pain and not know how to fix it." Especially when children aren't forthcoming about details. Gina's daughter wouldn't tell her what was going on, and the more Gina pushed for details, the more her daughter retreated.
Trying to Fit In
In its purest definition, a clique is any tightly knit group of friends. But for generations of students, the term has taken on a distinctly negative connotation, denoting any social group where those inside the circle cultivate an air of privilege and exclusivity, and who make themselves feel good by making those outside the circle feel ostracized and unworthy.
Typical targets are kids who may feel socially awkward, who harbor doubts about their appearance and personality, and who may have an underdeveloped sense of confidence and self-esteem. In other words, targets are the vast majority of kids, especially as they approach the tumultuous teen years.
Once considered a phenomenon primarily among high school girls, cliques today crop up as early as elementary school, posing challenges for children and their parents. Cliques may be forming sooner, in part, because today's young children spend more time at childcare facilities or participating in extracurricular activities, says Peter Adler, a University of Denver sociologist who coauthored a 10-year study of third through sixth graders.
"Forming such groups or belonging to them has become even more important now because children are spending as much time, if not more, with their peers than with their parents," he says. A clique can be more important than family, as kids struggle to find a place where they are accepted. Complicating matters is the fact that children also tend to form groups in which membership is determined by status symbols: hairstyle, clothes, personal accessories, and more, based on the deluge of pop culture images and ads pitching "cool" products to kids.
"And parents buy into it," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (Three Rivers, 2003). "Mom and Dad remember what it felt like when they weren't allowed to buy the clothes and shoes that the popular kids wore. Now they feel like they're failing kids if they don't get them the hottest jeans. But they're not."
Under the Influence
Clique behavior has changed very little through the years. Most parents today would have no problem identifying the unpleasant traits that make cliques such harmful and destructive influences in a child's life. Girls engage in catty behavior and nasty comments, judging each other on appearance and material possessions. Boys' cliques behave similarly, but emphasis is more likely to be placed on athletic ability, physical prowess, and appearance.
Because of their inherent promise of status and prestige, these groups can seem all-important in the lives of kids seeking to define themselves and longing to bolster their sense of self-confidence.
"You're in a life raft floating down the school hallway. It's really scary and exciting," says Wiseman. "You are desperate to have somebody you can walk with. To be in a group makes kids feel safe, that they belong. The irony is that groups can be a huge support and a way to survive adolescence. But they can have a destructive influence, too."
Take, for example, a highly publicized hazing incident last spring involving high school girls in an affluent Chicago suburb. Senior-class girls -- the leaders of the most popular clique at their particular school -- were videotaped assaulting younger girls and throwing animal intestines, human waste, and other foul substances at them. The targeted girls submitted to the abuse and humiliation because they wanted to be admitted into the group. Instead, several girls were admitted into the hospital with severe injuries from the hazing.
Perhaps worse than physical injury is the mental and moral damage cliques can inflict, says Wiseman. When a member of the clique is taunting another student, fellow members are expected to join in, or at least stand by and do nothing. "This teaches moral cowardice," says Wiseman. "In the face of injustice or cruelty being done to you or others, you look the other way. Or you rationalize it as the price you have to pay so you'll be accepted. No one wants to be left out."
Establishing Clique Control
But at some point in her life, every child is bound to experience some sense of being excluded or even unpopular. Such situations seldom have a quick-fix solution, and perhaps that's just as well. If there's a silver lining to these experiences, it's that kids can use them to develop a greater sense of self-reliance and learn how to remind themselves of their good qualities. Here are some ways parents can help.
Get the Lay of the Land
To find out your child's situation, have him draw a map of where kids sit in the cafeteria or play on the playground -- and his location, says Wiseman. Encourage him to talk about the social situation at school and pay attention to all the key players in this real-life soap opera. And like a soap opera, you should expect to go through several episodes before anything gets resolved.
Avoid Knee-Jerk Responses
"Parents tend to get nervous, intervene too quickly, and assume the worst," says Peter Adler. If your child's social standing takes a downturn, try to take control. Be available to talk and offer support, but wait three or four days for the kids to work it through themselves. Of course, if your child is being bullied or physically threatened, don't wait for things to get out of hand. At that point, it's worth talking to teachers and school officials to make sure everyone stays safe.
Let Your Child Lead
Instead of telling your child what you think the problem is and how she should solve it, help her examine her situation. Gina Kurban learned that pushing her daughter too hard for information was also pushing the girl away. "The best thing I did was to back off,' she says.
Offer Constructive Suggestions
To ease rejection or isolation, help your child find new activities and people -- a soccer team, piano lessons, summer camp. "The more she sees herself in different ways, the more she's able to bounce back," says Wiseman. Gina Kurban tried to empower her daughter by advising, "Don't let them see that they've gotten to you -- because then they're winning," she says. It worked. As the members of the clique realized their behavior didn't seem to hurt Gina's daughter, they eventually gave up. "She got through it. I think I helped," Gina says.
Parents can also turn the unpleasant situation into a learning experience, using it as a chance to remind a child that how she felt can help shape how she'll treat others. That in turn will ultimately make her a stronger, more understanding person.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, March 2004.