The Pressure to be Popular

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The teen years are tough. Help your teen deal with the inevitability of peer pressure by learning what it’s like … again.

Full1195.jpgThe desire to fit in can be overwhelming for kids who look to model the examples of popularity they see on TV and in magazines. They can easily equate being part of a specific group with social status, personal accomplishments and good fortune. Fitting in – or feeling as though you don’t fit in – can affect a child’s self-esteem, grades and communication and leadership skills.

While the pressures of popularity greatly increase with teens in high school, children begin forming social groups and standards as early as the first grade. They gravitate towards classmates for a variety of reasons such as personality, ability and appeal.

Attending school, sports practice or extra-curricular classes may seem brutally unpleasant to a child who feels he doesn’t “belong.” The added stress of the physical changes that puberty brings often sends teens and ‘tweens in search of a social group to feel safe in. Some try to blend into the melting pot of styles, ideals and opinions represented in the school halls in the hopes of not being viewed as different or original. Others opt for a contrasting strategy of intentionally trying to stand out hoping somehow to fit into a crowd of “originals” or “social misfits.”

What’s Learned in School

Liz Maurin, a high school foreign language teacher, has seen how overpowering the quest for popularity can be. Unfortunately, she has seen the situation turn ugly. “Kids resort to behaviors that border on dangerous just to get the attention of a member of the opposite sex or to break into a clique,” says Maurin. “They’ve learned how to manipulate situations and words just to be popular.”

It can be difficult for adults to navigate through the various pressure situations kids face. Spreading rumors, telling lies or being intentionally hurtful are just a few of the dilemmas our children face daily to gain recognition among their peers.

Maurin has seen some of her students teeter on the verge of a breakdown from the pressure to get into the “in” crowd. “Kids will intentionally ruin their grade point averages because they don’t want to be considered too smart,” she says. “They’ll defy parents, teachers and counselors just to go along with what their group is doing.”

In a study at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers supported what Maurin sees in the halls of her school. They learned that young people connect risky behavior with popularity.

The study also found that nearly 75 percent of teens believe their peers who are perceived as popular are more likely to engage in drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or pot or gambling than their “unpopular” ones. “Young people know that cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol are easily accessible, and many believe that the popular kids drink and smoke cigarettes or marijuana,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center. “Since popular kids shape the norms that influence the attitudes and behaviors of those their age, this combination of popularity and accessibility is a dangerous mix.”

Countering the Pressure

Whether it’s experimenting with teen drinking, sexual activity or contemplating an embarrassing round of truth or dare, you can help your child develop a strong mental and emotional constitution to weather the storm of popularity pressure.

“Providing a stable support network is the first step in overcoming peer pressure” says child advocate specialist Diana Derby. “Kids need to know they have options to the pressured choices they face among their peers.”

Maintaining open lines of communication with your child will help him to make clear and safe choices. Talking about the circumstances and decisions you faced as a teen are helpful, but listening objectively to his scenarios will give you valuable insight into his life.

Understanding what he views as important will provide a starting point. Whether making the football team or cheerleading squad or being invited to a party or dance is the priority, it’s important to understand what your child is attempting to accomplish socially.

If your daughter’s looking to replace her junior high look with one that’s more mature and suited to high school, you’re a more stable adviser to help her apply make-up than a friend in the bathroom between classes. And when it comes to harmful substances, Derby recommends talking to your child about the tastes, effects and consequences of them in order to satisfy curiosities he might otherwise explore as a result of pressure from friends. “Be honest about the consequences of decisions he might make out of pressure to fit in” Derby adds.

 


It’s Good to Have Options

Children battling the pressure to be popular need a positive support structure. Cheryl Browne-Ojei, Ph.D., works to provide at-risk children a safe haven to express themselves while feeling they belong to a group of their peers. She helps kids build self-esteem through positive situations and examples.

Giving a child who feels he doesn’t fit in the chance to positively impact a situation helps his confidence soar. He’ll be more likely to stand up for himself at school or sports practice. Teachers like Liz Maurin have seen that children who exude high self-esteem and confidence in their decision to not give into pressure often become “founding fathers” of their own social group.

The opportunity to gain support from extended family members and friends also boosts esteem and resilience to pressure. Having the option to shoot hoops with an older brother and his friends from college gives your teen an appealing “out” to participating in a drinking contest all in the name of fitting in.

Encourage your kids to pursue hobbies, sports interests or creative outlets to meet peers with similar interests. Sometimes the chance to spend time talking with a buddy about the round of weekend football games or attending dance class with a friend helps teens navigate through pressures to fit in.

If you take a mental trip back in time to your days in junior high and high school, you’ll remember how vital it felt to belong to a group – whichever group that happened to be. Recognizing those insecurities and social anxieties are what teens and ‘tweens still experience today and will help you help your child cope with the pressure he faces to be popular.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a licensed clinical social worker and freelance writer.


 

HELPFUL READS

When in doubt, check a book out. There are plenty of books available to help you and your teen through the popularity pressures.

Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me?: A Guide to
Raising Socially Confident Kids

(Perennial Currents)
By Hara Marano

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to
Surviving Peer Pressure for Teens

(Alpha Books)
By Hilary Cherniss and Sara Jane Sluke

How to be Popular
(Chronicle)
By Jennifer McKnight-Trontz

Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other
Realities of Adolescence

(Three Rivers Press)
By Rosalind Wiseman

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