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Understanding Cliques

Friendship is an important part of kids' development. Having friends helps them be independent beyond the family and prepares them for the mutual, trusting relationships we hope they'll form as adults.

Groups of friends are different from cliques in some important ways.

  • Groups of friends form based on things kids have in common, like sports, activities, classes, neighborhoods, or even family connections. In groups of friends, members are free to socialize and hang out with others outside the group without worrying about being cast out. They may not do everything together — and that's OK.
  • Cliques are tight groups that usually have a strict code of membership and ways to act. They do most things together. But instead of being centered on shared values and beliefs, many cliques focus on maintaining their status and popularity. For instance, a clique may try to make it seem like the people in it are "better" than those outside or that the clique has a higher status than another one.

Why Do Kids Join Cliques?

Cliques attract kids for different reasons. For some kids, being popular or cool is most important, and cliques give them a place where they can get this social status. Other kids want to join because they don’t want to feel left out.

Cliques give kids who like to take control a chance to be in charge (for good or bad). They’re usually tightly controlled by leaders who decide who’s "in" and who’s "out." For children who feel more comfortable following, cliques offer a place where rules are clearly defined.

Kids who seem likeable and popular may actually be excluded from a clique. Their personality or confidence may pose a threat to the leader. They might not be a good “follower” — especially if they’re popular enough on their own. Sometimes their friends may even be invited to join instead.

Why Do Kids Follow a Clique’s Leader?

Members of the clique usually follow the leader's rules, whether it's wearing certain clothes or doing a type of activity. Cliques usually involve lots of rules — implied or clearly stated — and intense pressure to follow them.

Most members cling to the leader not out of true friendship but because they want to keep their position in the group. Kids in cliques often worry about whether they'll still be popular. They also might worry about whether the group will drop them for doing or saying the wrong thing or for not dressing in a certain way. This can create a lot of pressure.

When Do Cliques Cause Problems?

For most kids, the preteen and teen years are a time to figure out how they want to fit in and how they want to stand out. It's natural for kids to occasionally feel insecure; long to be accepted; and hang out with the kids who seem more attractive, cool, or popular.

But cliques can cause long-lasting trouble when:

  • kids behave in a way they feel conflicted about or know is wrong to please a leader and stay in the group
  • kids are pushed into buying expensive clothing or getting involved in teasing and gossip (in-person or online)
  • kids are forced to take risks like stealing or pulling pranks 
  • a group becomes an antisocial clique or a gang that has unhealthy rules, like weight loss, or that bully or threaten others based on looks, disabilities, race, or ethnicity
  • a child is rejected by a group and feels excluded and alone

Cliques are often at their most intense in middle school, but problems with cliques can start as early as 4th and 5th grades.

How Can Parents Help?

As your child navigates friendships and cliques, there's plenty you can do to offer support:

  • Talk about your own experiences with school and cliques.
  • Explain that clique leaders probably worry as much about being popular and accepted as outsiders.
  • Find books about friendship and cliques that kids can relate to like "Blubber" by Judy Blume, or movies like "Mean Girls" and "Angus."
  • Get your child involved in extracurricular activities like art classes, sports, martial arts, language study, or volunteering, which offer chances to make friends outside of school and are based on common interests.
  • Encourage your child to have healthy friendships and not get too caught up in cliques. Teach kids to be sensitive to others and not always go along with a group.

You can explain that cliques can change quickly and making true friends is what’s important. The real secret to being popular is for kids to be the kind of friend they’d like to have.

Reviewed by: Jessica Pierce, PhD
Date Reviewed: Jun 1, 2023

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