It’s normal and healthy for teenagers to begin to question and discover who they are. What types of things do they like? What seems right to them, and what seems wrong? One way that teens can discover these truths about themselves is to talk to others who have similar thoughts. They might also try out different groups of friends to see where they fit in. It’s not unusual for an adolescent to start off in one type of peer group (say, with the “jocks”) and later end up spending more time with a different peer group (perhaps the more academically minded students) as they learn more about what they want out of life. Many times, social cliques can be healthy and improve a teen’s social skills. Other times, however, social cliques can become dangerous, not only to the people in the clique, but also to those outside of it. Many teens will gravitate toward healthy peer groups, but others will tend to end up in negative groups. As a parent, you have some influence over the type of group your teen joins.
Positive Peer Groups
When a teen is in a positive peer group, he or she gets a lot of support from friends. Adolescents go through lots of ups and downs when it comes to their feelings, and having a good group of friends can ease the burden. They learn to depend on others, and they learn how to let others depend on them.
In addition, a positive peer group will exert a good influence in terms of grades, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and even family obligations. Your teen might look up to a friend in their group and try to do things the way the friend would. When the influence is good, this means that your teen might adopt better study habits, become more dependable, and act in a more sociable way. In the same sense, your teen might influence others in the group to improve attitudes and behaviors in their own lives. This can raise your teen’s self esteem and improve their overall mental health.
Dangers of Social Cliques
There are, of course, some dangers to being in a clique, particularly when the influence is negative. One of the most dangerous is if members of the group engage in self-destructive behaviors, like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or committing crimes like shoplifting. These activities can cause a lot of disruption and chaos now, and your teen might even deal with the ramifications for years to come. Negative social cliques might also encourage your teen to not care about grades or to develop a rude attitude toward the family. This is what parents are often worried about when their teens fall into “the wrong crowd.”
A less obvious negative to being in a clique can be that your teen might hesitate to branch out and meet other people who belong to different groups. For example, if your teen is in a clique that looks down on the teens who play sports, they could be missing out not only on the physical and mental health benefits of sports, but also on some potentially good friendships with kids who happen to be “jocks.”
When a Teen Is Excluded or Bullied
One danger of social cliques is that some teens will be excluded from them. This can negatively affect their mental health. A teen who feels like they’re not part of any group might develop social anxiety or depression. Their self-esteem might dip, and this can affect their grades, their sleeping habits, and their overall physical health. They might be more likely to turn to a group who is into alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with feeling left out.
Sometimes, groups of teens fall into the mob mentality that makes bullying seem acceptable. This is dangerous for the kids who are bullied, but it’s also dangerous for the ones who are doing the bullying. Both bullies and the bullied can develop depression or anxiety over the situation. Those who are bullied might be at greater risk of physical danger or thoughts of suicide, and those who are doing the bullying often struggle with guilt in addition to a feeling of obligation to their friends.
What You Can Do
If your teen is getting involved with a negative peer group, there are a few things you can do. The first is to simply talk to your child. Ask what he or she likes about the friends they’re hanging out with. Also, ask what he or she doesn’t like. Try to listen without judgement; it’s possible that just airing their grievances out loud will be enough for your teen to decide to back away from the friendship. In addition, if you go in demanding that your teen cut off contact with “bad” friends, it’s very likely that they’ll do exactly the opposite. Don’t set up a situation where it’s likely that your teen will lie; instead, make it acceptable for your teen to continue the friendships unless his or her health or safety is in immediate danger.
If there is a situation where your teen is in danger (for example, they are spending their evenings drinking or experimenting with drugs along with their friends), then you need to take action. Although your teen should be allowed to choose his or her friends, it is important that they still continue to follow your house rules. Drug use is probably against your rules, so you should impose a swift consequence for that. (In addition, you should seek substance abuse counseling for your teenager.) If your teen is expected to maintain a certain level of grades, then there can be consequences for failing to do that, too. If you set firm boundaries and don’t allow your teen to cross them, then they might decide on their own to find friends who will make that easier.
Friendships are important to your teen, as they should be. If you have concerns that your teen is in the wrong group or that he or she is being excluded altogether, you can seek the advice of a mental health counselor who is experienced in working with teenagers. With some help, your teen can experience the joy of healthy friendships now and in the years to come.