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Coping With Cliques

Do you ever feel like you're auditioning for a remake of "Mean Girls"? Have you had it up to here with the gossip and put-downs? Are you tired of following the dress code of your group but think you'll be dropped if you don't?

Are you holding back on approaching someone you'd like to be friends with because you think she's in a group that's out of your league? Are you concerned about whether you'll still be included this year at school or whether you'll feel like an outcast — or worse, be picked on?

Whether you're on the outside looking in or the inside wanting out, it can help to know what makes cliques tick.

A Group of Friends vs. a Clique

Figuring out friendship is part of growing up. It can be great to have a BFF or a group of pals to hang out with. Being part of a group can help make your day easier to deal with — and you can learn some great life skills like being a good listener, sharing experiences, and respecting people.

Groups can form around things people have in common. So jocks, goths, preps, skaters, and even the math club are naturally drawn together because they share similar interests. The people in these groups feel they have a place where they are welcome and supported, and where they can be themselves, quirks and all. Some people form groups from being in drama club, or liking the same music or movies, or even just because they like to hang out at the mall.

Some groups stick together for a long time. Others drift apart after a while as people develop new interests, make different friends, or just find they have less in common. People can move in and out of different groups and can even be part of several at the same time. Even within a group, people often have one or two friends they feel closest to and enjoy the most.

Some friendship groups seem pretty flexible and welcome people to join in. Others seem much more restricted, though. People in these groups make it clear that not just anyone can be part of their crowd. That type of restricted group is sometimes called a clique.

What's the Deal With Cliques?

Cliques are tight groups that usually have a strict code of membership and ways to act. Instead of being centered on shared values and beliefs, many cliques tend to focus on maintaining their status and popularity. For instance, a certain clique may try to make it seem like the people in the clique are "better" than those outside, or that their clique is higher status than another clique.

People in cliques sometimes use their power to hurt others on purpose, either by excluding them, being mean, or both. Sometimes they might insult people by trying to "fix" them or give them "makeovers." Sometimes it becomes more serious and someone outside the group is targeted or victimized for being, looking, or acting different.

Unlike regular groups of friends, where members are free to socialize with others outside the group, people in cliques do everything together. They sit together in class, go to the mall together after school — and they only do stuff with other clique members or people they decide are "cool."

Although people might think it's better to belong to a clique than to be excluded, many times people in cliques end up dealing with lots of pressures and rules. They soon start to worry about whether they'll continue to be popular or whether they'll be dropped. After a while, they may begin to realize that true friends wouldn't be so bossy or demanding.

Why Do Cliques Attract People?

Cliques attract people for different reasons: For some people, being popular or cool is the most important thing, and cliques give them a place where they can get this social status. Other people want to be in cliques because they don't like to feel left out. Some people simply feel it's better to be on the inside than the outside (it's not, but more on that later).

Cliques give people who like to take control a chance to be in charge (for good or bad!). For people who feel more comfortable following, they offer a place where rules are clearly defined. It's usually clear to clique members what they need to do to fit in. Sometimes that means sacrificing some freedom and following the leader rather than doing what you feel like doing.

Clique membership is usually tightly controlled by the leaders. These social gatekeepers are the ones with the power to decide who should be hot and who should not. This type of membership control usually happens in cliques of girls.

As many great kids have found, entry into a clique isn't guaranteed. In fact, a girl who is seen as likeable and popular may actually be excluded from belonging to a clique. That's because her personality or confidence may pose a threat to the leaders. She might not be a good "follower" — especially if she can be popular enough on her own. Sometimes her friends may even be invited to join when she isn't. Clique members may deliberately exclude her in an attempt to take away her perceived power or the threat they think she could pose.

Cliques aren't just for girls. Guys form cliques, too — usually around a sport, computer game, or type of clothing or music. They can be just as mean as girls about the outcasts of the social group.

The View from the Inside

It's not all roses inside a clique either. A person's standing within the group can always be under threat. Most of the followers cling to the leader not out of true friendship but because they want to keep their position in the group. But even the leader can lose her power. In fact, the queen bee in a strong girl clique probably worries as much — or even more — about being popular and accepted as the outsiders do. Because no one feels secure, clique members often use the tools of flattery, humiliation, or rumors to manipulate situations and preserve their status.

A few girls manage to stay friends with people both inside and outside the clique. But that can be hard to do because there's often intense pressure from the group to be friends only with people on the approved list. It takes a lot of self-confidence to dare to be friends with someone outside the clique.

Sometimes clique members decide they want out. They don't like being limited by the rules, and they don't like leaving others out and hurting people's feelings. As people get older, they may not feel like being part of a clique anymore. Usually toward the end of high school, kids are more relaxed about who is "in" and who is not. But earlier on in your school life it can take a lot of courage to leave a clique or decide to remain on the outside.

Beware of online groups and cliques using social network sites. These have become popular sites to diss others, invite only selected friends to a party, and make mean comments about photos. People can even build fake profiles. Only post profile information and photos that you want everyone to see. Keep your messages to other people online private.

Surviving Cliques

Whether you're on the inside or the outside, cliques can make your life tough. But there are ways to cope:

Friendships change. Just as one clique can make life miserable, changes in social groups can take their power away. You may encounter cliques as a freshman or sophomore. But the good news is that most cliques have disappeared by the end of high school.

Want to know the real secret to being popular and having friends? Be a good friend yourself. People who enjoy true and lasting popularity are those who have good friendship skills. Being a friend means being respectful, fair, interested, trustworthy, honest, caring, and kind. So if you want to have friends, be just the kind of friend you'd like to have and stay true to who you are.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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