Why cliques form at a young age and how to overcome them.


What Is a Clique?

Has your 8-year-old daughter come home from school complaining that she's not allowed to sit with the cool kids at lunch? Does your 9-year-old son hang out with a group of boys who seem to exclude others? Your child may be the target of, or a member of, a clique -- an exclusive group of children who often use their status, power, and popularity to manipulate or ostracize others.

While most of us think of cliques as being a middle school or high school phenomenon, social groups are now forming as early as first or second grade. And by third grade, they can become quite exclusionary, says Peter Adler, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Denver and coauthor of Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (Rutgers University Press, 1998).

Why are cliques forming so early? One reason may be that children are spending more time with their peers at a younger age (starting in day care or preschool). By the time they hit grade school, they've already discovered the benefits of group behavior, says Adler. They've found that having a tight-knit circle of friends can provide them with a sense of belonging, self-esteem, prestige, status, and self-confidence, and even allow them to feel as if they have a small family outside their own. On a practical level, kids in cliques always have someone to play with at recess, someone's birthday party to attend, or someone to sit with at lunch.

Who's in the In Crowd?

While cliques can provide social acceptance for some children, they can cause others to feel cast out and unpopular. The problem heats up around third grade when boys and girls start forming gender-specific social groups and the stakes to fit in become higher, says Adler. For instance, while conducting a 10-year study among third- through sixth-grade students in Boulder, Colorado, Adler found that children needed some kind of "social capital" to gain entry into the cool clique. For girls, that capital could include being pretty or wearing nice clothes; for boys, toughness and athletic ability might be the currency. (Incidentally, boys who did well in school were not considered cool.)

While being ostracized is no fun, getting into a clique doesn't guarantee a trouble-free social life -- being a member can also have a downside. For one thing, each clique generally has one or two leaders and a core group of members who not only set standards for inclusion, but also set consequences for members who behave in a way that the other members don't like. In other words, if a clique member says something "dumb," hangs out with someone who isn't cool, or is treated as the teacher's pet, he or she could be kicked out of the group -- at least temporarily, says Adler.

Cliques can be extremely volatile, particularly among girls, who tend to be more exclusive than boys, adds Diane Ross Glazer, PhD, a child therapist in Santa Monica, California. And even though children in cliques may be friends for years, their relationships can often be capricious and problematic.

How to Help

So how can you help your grade school child develop healthy friendships and find her social niche, whether or not she's been accepted into a clique? Here are some guidelines from the experts.

If your child is not in a clique:

  • Help her find an activity outside of school (and away from established cliques), where she can make new friends based on common interests.
  • Plan one-on-one social dates at your home, or at a friend's house, or in a neutral location.
  • Invite a child, even a clique member, to spend the night at your house. Having a sleepover can be a bonding experience, says Glazer. Also remember that some kids who are popular can still be very nice and a potential friend to your child, she adds.
  • Make your home an open and fun place to be. Have children over frequently, and allow your child every opportunity to develop friendships.
  • Remind your child that it shouldn't really matter if she's in a clique, as long as she has a couple of good friends at school.

If your child is in a clique:

  • Teach her the values of empathy and inclusion. Ask your child how she feels when someone hurts her feelings or when she's been excluded from an activity. Then ask her to put herself in the position of a child who's been hurt or excluded.
  • Help her make friends outside of the clique. Enroll her in classes or activities that pique her interest and allow her to meet new children. Then organize one-on-one play dates outside of school.
  • Talk to your child's teacher about regrouping kids in a classroom. For instance, a teacher might separate clique members and put them into groups with other children to work on reports, art projects, or experiments. This can help clique members and other kids get to know each other in different ways.
  • If your child has temporarily or permanently been kicked out of a clique, help her solve the problem on her own. (In other words, don't confront the clique leader -- or her mother -- yourself!) Remind her that there are lots of other nice kids to play with, set up play dates with new friends, and get her involved in activities that allow her to meet other children and build self-esteem.
  • Don't try to dismantle a clique (this will only backfire), but do try to make it more humane. Talk to your child about the consequences of her actions, and remind her that there's something good about everyone.

Sources: Peter Adler, PhD; Diane Ross Glazer, PhD

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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