In elementary school, Nadia and Rosie walked home together every day. They would play with Nadia’s dog and swing on Nadia’s hammock. In sixth grade, that all changed. Rosie felt suffocated by Nadia and dodged her after school. She’d hide in the bathroom until her new friends said the coast was clear. Nadia was hurt and confused, and her mother, Dana, was conflicted. “They’ve been best friends forever,” she told me. “But Rosie is in a faster crowd and constantly gets in trouble. I want Nadia to move on, but instead she’s become obsessed with who’s popular. I’m not sure what, if anything, I should say to Rosie’s mom.”
The leap from elementary to middle school is a vulnerable time. Kids start to care more about their standing among peers than their role in the family. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist and co-author of “Growing Friendships, A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends,” notes that only 75 percent of middle-schoolers’ friendships last from fall to spring. “For some kids, it’s a positive thing and a chance to branch out or reinvent themselves,” she says. For others, it’s an opportunity to chase status. Boys may be even more likely than girls to jockey for position, she says. “They tend to challenge kids they think they can beat, who are near them in social rank.”
Although parents may want to downgrade the importance of popularity, they shouldn’t discount it entirely. “I’ve been surprised by how enduring the effects are 30 to 40 years later,” says Mitch Prinstein, author of “Popular, the Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.” He says that early experiences can change the expression of our DNA, our marriages and even our children’s popularity. “We have a give-and-take with our environment, and if you’re popular, you’re given more opportunities to practice social skills or gain access to new information,” he explains. The flip side is that unpopular kids don’t get the same advantages.
That said, when it comes in the form of likability and making others feel included and welcomed, popularity leads to good outcomes. Adolescents, however, are wired to chase the more aggressive, status-seeking variety depicted in movies like “Mean Girls.” “That kind is about being cool, visible, influential and dominant, and kids who trade on status may vie for it as adults and fail to develop other important skills,” Prinstein says. As a result, they may be more likely to experience depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties or addiction.
Here are seven steps parents can take to ensure kids develop the right skills, focus on likability, and value authenticity over power and status.
Prinstein urges parents to watch their own behavior. “Do you say, ‘I’m so proud of you because everyone wants to be you,’ or ‘I’m proud of how you helped someone else feel better about themselves?’ Do you talk about how many likes your posts get on Facebook?” He recently saw a teen magazine that featured an instruction manual for getting likes and followers. “It talked about how so-and-so was sad and lonely, but now she has a million followers on Vine,” he says. “We could end up with a generation of kids who know how to curate their image and are obsessed with status.”
Make sure your kids understand that life isn’t about likes, says Sue Scheff, author of “Shame Nation.” “Stop liking, liking, liking, and counting your likes,” she says. “Ask questions that encourage kids to target real, quality friends rather than fly-by-nights.” Offline, don’t convey to your kids that they need to be in a particular club or clique. When you focus on ephemeral popularity, kids won’t learn how to identify healthy, reciprocal relationships.
When kids are unhappy with their place in the pecking order, offer extra love, acknowledge their feelings and share your values. You can’t persuade them to not care, but you can try to understand why this matters to them.
“Ask them what they think it means and how it’s going to change their life, then examine the reality of their social circle,” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Md. and co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.” Remind them what they’d lose if they sacrificed their existing friendships to pursue popularity.
“It’s so difficult when a kid wants to be popular, and there are no easy answers,” Prinstein says. Adults can point out that the most popular kids may be actively disliked. “Kids might assume they have it all, but they may be lonely and lack trusting, reliable friendships,” he says.
Julia Guillen Williams, a pupil personnel worker in Montgomery County, also encourages students to think more expansively. “A girl may be thin and dress perfectly, but do we know her or what’s really happening in her life?”
“In every community, there are things that make you popular,” Prinstein says. “If it’s a wealthy community, it might have to do with your level of wealth. If it’s a religious community, it might be about your parent’s status in the religion.” You can teach skills that will make a child more likable, but helping them attain status is trickier. When you’re able to attribute kids’ lack of conventional popularity to external factors, they’ll be less likely to suffer from depression or conclude they’re not worthy. By encouraging them to focus on what they can control, including being kind, you’ll increase the odds that they land the right friends.
There’s a primal social impulse to be part of the pack, but kids thrive when they think less about themselves and more about others. “Don’t focus on ‘I,’ ” says Claire Shipman, author of “The Confidence Code for Girls.” “Move outward to ‘What am I doing to be involved in a cause or to do for others?’ If your son or daughter comes home and says, ‘No one likes me’ or ‘Everyone is walking to lunch without me,’ turn the tables,” she says. Encourage them to invite that new kid to lunch or to tutor a younger student. When kids transcend the self, they feel empowered and confident. Engaging in something bigger than themselves also helps them stop ruminating about unreturned texts or their social position.
The unspoken rule of adolescence is that you’re supposed to interact with the people closest to you in the social hierarchy, Prinstein explains. The culture may value physical attractiveness or athletic ability, but your child may thrive in a setting that values academic achievement or community service. Look for activities that align with your child’s interests.
Use school resources, too. Your child’s teachers and counselors can suggest good friend matches, invite students to group lunches, pair them on projects and reinforce social skills. But stay involved and don’t outsource everything. Talk to your kid, get to know your child’s friends and connect with other parents.
Kennedy-Moore urges parents to help struggling kids practice basic skills such as asking questions. “We need to help them focus on connecting instead of impressing.” She encourages kids to identify common ground. “If you’re talking about something that only pertains to you, it’s irrelevant to the friendship,” she says. Are they wearing a shirt from a music group you like? Did they watch the same football game last night?
Some kids may not know how to join a conversation. Show them how to slide into action without interrupting, and match the emotional tone of the group. “If everyone is complaining about the social studies test and one girl says it was easy, it’s like a sour note in the melody of the conversation,” Kennedy-Moore says. “When we look at videos of kids who end up being the most liked, they listen to others and try to build on and shape what they’re doing instead of saying ‘No, that’s stupid, let’s do it this way,’ ” Prinstein says.
Children from military families may move seven or eight times before they hit middle school. School counselor Rebecca Best, who runs groups for military kids, says that other students can learn from their openness. They may be more likely to approach a stranger in a crowded cafeteria or to appreciate positivity over status.
“These kids have figured out what works for them,” Best says. “They’re not trying to find a forever friend or a best friend. There’s a freedom to take risks on new friendships when you live in the moment.” When the goal is to befriend people who are nice, the burden of popularity is lifted. During a phase defined by social churn, everyone benefits from some social flexibility.
Dana decided not to contact Rosie’s mom. She knew the friendship had run its course and took a more personal approach. “I told Nadia how my best friend dumped me when a sophisticated new girl transferred to our tiny school,” she recalls. “I found real friends instead of clinging to the edge of a group that wanted nothing to do with me.”
Dana drew from that experience to help her daughter form new bonds. She fanned the flames on Nadia’s emerging friendships, offering to drive groups of girls to the movies or the mall. She understood that the best antidote to craving the wrong friends is finding the right ones.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in the District and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.