Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Teen Culture

Once a child discovers the world outside of family, they begin to feel the pressure to fit into it. In early childhood, a childs focus is on family that is their world. As the child gains independence, the role of peers becomes their focus. These peers are supposed to help them transition from childhood to adulthood, and sometimes it can be a treacherously painful journey.

A childs group of friends will serve as a “home away from home,” make school less lonely, and serves as a panel to help her learn who she is. Large groups of kids, such as a class or student body go through a rigorous peer imposed sorting. Kids divide themselves into groups by common interests, financial status, and sometimes outside social arenas such as churches or groups of family friends or sports teams. These naturally occurring groups are not a bad thing. Sometimes they take on a leader or two, as some children naturally lead and others follow, so that even the group has it’s own individual hierarchy within it.

Once the group takes on an aura of exclusivity, it has become a clique and suddenly, the only people who are allowed into the group are those deemed worthy enough, usually by the leader. A child who is not in any group or clique may become an easy target for the free-roaming bullies or the leaders of the cliques. Reading the description of a middle-school cafeteria in the book “Cliques” by Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese brought up strong mental images of a prison yard, with it’s segregated population into gangs. The need for new prisoners to join a gang for protection is absolute. I believe that it is also crucial for adolescents to find a group of friends to shield them from the bullies and other various groups. The more powerful the “gang” or social clique, the stronger the protection from peer torment. Duh!

As with real gangs, cliques also have a strict code of conduct. The leaders determine who the group members are allowed to talk to, sit with, dress like, date, even what to watch, read or like. Being excluded from a clique can be hard, and being in one isn’t always a picnic either, as the members have to adhere strictly to the rules and have to deal with the constant stress of measuring up to the cliques ideals. None the less, our children understand on a very primal level the “dog eat dog” atmosphere of the social scene, and that joining a clique can be a matter self-preservation, socially speaking. To a twelve year old, that is everything.

According to “Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity” by Patricia and Peter Adler, the infrastructure of the average middle school can be broken up thus: 35% popular clique, 10% popular fringe, 45% middle friendships, 10% loners. Most of us can attest that it was the same way back when we were in school, regardless of our current age, or how long it’s been since we stepped into a middle school cafeteria. And while the names of the various groups change along with the hair and clothing styles, they are, by and large the same types of groups throughout our modern history. According to an article by John Kelly, for TLC Family, these are the current groups of kids today:

  • Geeks - defined by their obsessive knowledge on specific topics, geeks can be trendy or nerdy.
  • Jocks - atheletic types, jocks usually don sports wear, but since they typically play sports for school, letterman jackets are often a part of their attire.
  • Skaters - the name skaters is not so very new, I remember skaters from 20 years ago. But before they were skaters, they were surfer wannabe’s.
  • Outsiders/Loners - don’t typically fit into a specific group. They stand alone either by choice, or force.
  • Hipsters - think hippies, indie’s, bohemians, etc. they have a flare for the arts and an eclectic quality.
  • Scenesters - the new “punk,” scenesters are cutting edge. They typically dress very trendy.
  • Emo Kids - some say emo’s are also scenesters, however, they are considered the new goth. They dress all in black, and simply “emote” their emotions.
  • Preps - will there ever be a world without preps? Preppies, yuppies, squares, straights, preps have been around for a very long time and I doubt they need an explanation.
  • Nerds - typically brainy and socially awkward. They spend their high school years being jammed into lockers, only to wind up being the boss later on.
  • Mean Girls - In the 80’s they were valley girls, in the 90’s they were barbies. They’ve lost their glamorous title and are referred to as how they are commonly perceived.

While we, as parents, can stive to help our children gain self-esteem, teach the importance of individuality, tolerance and self-respect, kids will still feel compelled to fit in. The peer crowd is like a social mirror. While some loners are comfortable and confident enough to not try to belong, the are the rare exception. Most kids take rejection as a direct personal fault and acceptance as a evidence of their base superiority. Of course, we parents know better, but try telling them that!

There are, however, things that we can do to help our children gain self-acceptance, even if they are not getting it from their classmates. First, some don’ts:

Don’t dismiss your childs need to fit into a group, or their troubles with their peer group when they express them to you. This is pretty much the way the older generations handled it, was to tell the kids that it’s no big deal, get over it, it’s not important. But challenging your childs belief that social acceptance is important will only create more self-doubt and reinforce their fears that their feelings are too small to matter. Let them know that you understand why their feelings are hurt and that it’s normal to be upset over (insert social crisis). Don’t go into a longwinded trip down memory lane, trying to relate. They don’t care about what happened 20 years ago and shifting the conversation to yourself when they are opening up to you will give them a sense that once again, their feelings are secondary. It’s enough just to validate their emotions and reassure them that anybody would be angry or sad about what’s happened. Sometimes, even if you can’t help, or even offer useful advice, it’s enough for them to find comfort in a sympathetic ear.

Don’t reject their friends. Unless your son or daughter is in that elite coveted group (and sometimes even when they are), they will wonder if their friends are good enough. Your child is trying to please, or at least be accepted by a lot of people and they frequently doubt their choices. Even if it doesn’t appear that they care what you think, they really do. By rejecting their friends, you are by extension, rejecting a part of them - the part that likes that person. And they really don’t need the extra criticism. Unless their friend (or boyfriend or girlfriend) is someone that you feel will truly bring them into harm, it’s best to at least give the appearance of an open mind.

Don’t play up the importance of social wins and fails. Bringing up social failures that you witness is like rubbing salt in the wound, and can even make your child feel judged. While it’s normal to want to try and make them feel better about it, don’t go on about it unless they bring it up and ask you for advice. Likewise, raving on about how popular they are can make them feel overly-anxious about losing their status - as if they aren’t already worried about that!

Here is what you can do:

Do ask your child about the different groups in school and if you can get them to, explain the social hierarchy as they see it - including who is “in” and who is “out”. Be careful though, if they sense that you’re fishing to find out what their popularity status is and it’s one that they are not proud of, they may become overly defensive and fear criticism coming.

Ask them about their past friends that they no longer hang out with, and where they ended up in the hierarchy of their environment. Once your child begins to open up, they may let you know where he or she feels they fit. Going through this can also help your child gain insight and social awareness which can be a powerful tool, even if it is only used for comfort in knowing.

Explaining the positives and negatives to your child of each station can can give them a world of perspective. This clarity can reinforce their confidence in their current position when they learn that there is no perfect place to be.

Popular kids: The other side of the coin, the ugly side of it, many would say, is that popularity exacts a heavy price. Inside the “inner circle” there is always jockeying for the top spot or to try and be as close to the leader as possible. As these kids often work very hard to earn their placement, they still have to work hard to maintain it. As the who’s in and who’s out saga can change on a dime and is nearly constantly changing, popular kids understand that one tiny slip is all it takes to send them toppling to the bottom or even get them expelled from the group. Sometimes, they don’t even have to make a mistake for someone to usurp their position. They always watch their backs. If that is not stress for one child to have to deal with, there’s more. The pressure for “cool kids” to maintain their status can be so intense that they feel forced into risky behaviors much more frequently than others kids do. “Just Say No” isn’t an option for someone who wishes to hold fast to their placement in a clique. Drinking, drugs and sex are not only prevailent to this group, for many, it’s a rule.

Popular Fringe: The popular fringe are the kids who hover around the popular crowd. Sometimes in, sometimes out, forever at the beck and call of the elite who they consider their authority. Often referred to as “wannabe’s” Many kids seem to feel pity for these fringe kids, who they feel trade their self respect for momentary forays into the spotlight. Deep down they often know that the popular kids will never truly let them in, but they insist on chasing them anyway.

Friendship circles: Making up the main, these kids aren’t the most popular and they do get teased, but for the most part they feel content. These kids feel very free to be their authentic selves and do as they please. To a popular kid, or one seeking popularity, being a geek or a nerd would seem to be a total nightmare. Yet, geeks are geeks and nerds are nerds and for the most part, they make no attempt to hide that fact or pretend to be something they are not. Why? Because their integrity is more important to them than unstable temporary power. Being occasionally mocked and ridiculed is worth the personal freedom that their station allows. For the most part, they enjoy true self acceptance - something that the popular kids - or those seeking popularity rarely have and do not gain until they have toppled from their pedestal.

Loners: There can be, on occasion, those kids who choose to isolate themselves from others. There are many people who are antisocial and prefer their time alone rather than hassle with people in a group. Most, however, are isolated through years of rejection by their peers. These kids can carry huge amounts of pain and anger toward those who constantly insult them for no reason, and those who stand by and watch. They are susceptible to depression, drug and alcohol abuse or violence. The good new about these kids, is they enjoy the utmost sense of personal freedom. And it should be noted that of the smartest, most talented and ultimately most successful adults, most claim that they were outcasts as teens. Indeed, their solidarity may well have allowed them time and opportunity to grow in ways that brought about their success.

True success of the healthy minded youth when it comes to social status is not to gain popularity and peer acceptance, but to gain self-acceptance. Personal identity does not have to reflect social identity and they do not have to accept the labels that their peers have placed on them. They don’t have to think badly of themselves if others do. Many people are well into adulthood before they realize this. Help your child to learn true self-acceptance, and they will have the ultimate social edge.

“Cliques” by Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese
“Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity” by Patricia and Peter Adler

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