Being excluded from cliques is a common experience for kids aged 8 to 14. It’s keenly felt by kids and is worrying for parents, who want to help but sometimes don’t know how to make things better.
“They used to be my friends, Mum, but now they leave me out of the group and spread rumours about me.”
If this sounds familiar, child psychologists at Kids First Children’s Services in Sydney’s northern beaches share practical strategies to help kids cope with the cliques and playground politics.
The key variable between friendship groups and cliques is power.
Your child might have a group of friends who share common interests. Their connection might be based on shared experiences in the classroom or on connections made through neighbourhood play, a sporting or cultural activity, or some kind of extra-curricular club.
In this group, your child and the kids who are part of it might not do everything together, but that’s okay by them. They come and go, hang out when they want to, and are not judged or excluded by their mates because they occasionally choose to do something different.
The environment in a clique, however, is usually quite different.
Cliques usually have quite obvious leaders who make the social decisions that the other kids are expected to abide by. The group’s leaders make the spoken, or sometimes unspoken, rules.
In a clique, kids may worry about whether their popularity will last or whether they’ll be ‘dropped’ for doing or saying the wrong thing. They often feel pressure to conform, and this can lead to a variety of negative behaviours… everything from ganging up on other kids using physical or psychological taunts, to anti-social behaviour such as stealing, underage drinking, and vandalism.
In essence, cliques are about social exclusivity. This makes them appealing to many kids, who are often keen to feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and connection with their peers.
They can be tricky though, because a clique is a fickle thing. What is cool one day can be very easily ‘uncool’ the next.
One day your child is ‘in’…and the next day they can be ‘out’.
If your child is confused about the changing dynamic of playground friendships he or she is not alone.
Between the ages of 8 and 14 in particular, it’s natural for kids to try to figure out where they fit in. The easy-going play of the early years of school where kids could basically play with anyone has passed and children occasionally feel insecure about who they are.
They are looking for their ‘tribe’… a group of like-minded mates with whom they can hang out with and be accepted.
It’s easy to see why kids are attracted to others who seem confident, cool, and popular. Let’s face it, we adults have probably done the same thing!
But cliques can cause ongoing problems for your child when:
Cliques are part of life’s social landscape and experiencing them is probably inevitable for most children. There are things that you can do, though, to help your child maintain self-respect and confidence while negotiating cliques and learning about what true friendship is all about.
1. Talk about your own experiences
Cliques have been around for a long time! Share your own experiences of school (or even your workplaces) so that your child understands that they are not the only one to have gone through these difficulties.
2. Discuss the role of power and control in friendships
You will need to deal with this in an age-appropriate way. Talk with your child about the fact that people are often judged by the way they look, act, or dress, but that this outward appearance is only part of who they are. Explain that children who are mean and put others down often behave this way because they lack self-confidence and are trying to cover their own insecurities up by maintaining control. Discuss who is in and who is out of groups, and what happens when kids are excluded (are they ignored, shunned, bullied?). Challenge your child to think and talk about whether they’re proud of the way they act in school and what they think of the kids who behave differently from them.
3. Foster out-of-school friendships and find other groups for your child to join
One of the reasons that cliques affect some children so badly is that they are struggling to find a group of like-minded companions. Out-of-school friendships based on the things your child likes, is interested in, or is good at are a great way to counter this. You may have to look in your local area for the kinds of activities that are not offered at school to find this ‘social sanctuary’ for your child. Think about organised group activities such as Scouting or Girl Guides. Creative options like art classes, dance, or drama might also give your child a chance to shine. Sports that go beyond the conventions of football and netball, such as martial arts, archery, horse riding, or even skateboarding and parkour are all great activities that could give your child the opportunity to create another social group, gain confidence and learn new skills.
4. Use stories to reinforce your friendship messages
Many books, TV shows, and movies portray the triumph of a rejected outsider. They also send strong messages about the importance of being true to your own values and the importance of being a good friend. If your child is a primary schooler, books like “Blubber” by Judy Blume illustrate how quickly cliques can change. Your older child or young teenager might relate to movies such as “Mean Girls,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Clueless” and the Harry Potter series.
It can be an uphill battle for parents to promote kindness, respect, and compassion when the media is full of popular reality shows that seem to promote judgmental behaviour as entertainment.
If your child is part of a clique and one of their friends is teasing others, it’s important to deal with that quickly. Talk to your child about what it means to be part of their group and how they think other kids might feel about being left out. Ask questions about who makes the decisions about who is in and who is out.
Ask your child if they agree with those choices and encourage them to reflect on the treatment their peers have received with questions like ‘If you weren’t a part of your group, do you think you could be friends with…?’
If you suspect that there is a problem, ask your child’s teachers, school counselor or assistant principal to observe the group dynamic and share their perspective on what is going on in the classroom and playground.
© 2022 Kids First Children’s Services
Kids First’s child psychologists have years of experience in supporting children as they find ways to navigate complex childhood friendships.
We are located on Sydney’s northern beaches and have helped hundreds of kids of all ages to develop confidence and resilience.
Find out more about what we do here or contact us on (02) 9938 5419 today to make an appointment to discuss your child’s needs.
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