Helping Teens Navigate High School Cliques

Teenage Cliques: The More Things Change

Research on teenage social groups shows that even though there are hundreds of names for teenage cliques and that their names may change from place to place, teenagers have the tendency to group themselves into four basic categories, or cliques. Most schools have their share of what we call jocks, smart kids, popular kids, and alternative kids. Some researchers argue that adults create these labels for the sake of simplification. And some agree with the labels and add a fifth group to the basic four, called “other.”

However, the same groups keep coming up year after year, in study after study.

The Originals

The first known academic work on teenage social groups was conducted in 1942 by Yale Sociology professor August Hollingshead. He identified three groups: The Elites, The Good Kids, and The Grubby Gang. Not too different from jocks, smart kids, popular kids, and alternative kids. Although the current social environment would deem the terms from 1942 unacceptable, the consistency of the subtypes resonates across the decades. Also, recent research confirms their validity. Sociologist Steve Sussman found the same groups when he reviewed over forty scholarly articles in his 2007 paper “Adolescent peer group identification and characteristics: A review of the literature.”

Most parents can relate to these groups. And most can remember what that particular group was called in their high school. Some names are funny, some names are mean, and some are simply descriptive. For instance, at one high school, kids in the marching band might be called band kids, which is not at all derogatory. But in another school they may be called band geeks, which many consider unkind.

It is interesting to note, however, that in the 21st century, many of the teenagers who in past years might have been derided as geeks have fully embraced the term. It’s safe to say that at this point, “geeks are cool.” This is partially due to the fact that technology and the Internet are such vital parts of modern life. The people with tech skills have moved into positions of wealth and power. It’s also partially due to the predictable cycles of human social behavior. What was once out is now in. But if you wait a few years, what is now in may well be out.

Why Do Teenagers Form Cliques?

Adolescence is a time of change: changing bodies, changing minds, and changing social groups. As kids leave elementary school and enter their middle and high school years, they start to separate from their parents physically, emotionally and psychologically.

On the physical level, a teenager’s body grows in ways that are different than the earlier stages of development. Hormones course through their veins, which cause changes that are sometime hard to understand and navigate. Also, during the teenage years kids begin to spend more time away from their parents. They become involved in after-school activities, sports, and have more unsupervised social time with friends. Emotionally and psychologically, teenagers begin to shift their identities away from their families and toward their friends. Around the age of 9, they begin to notice differences between themselves and others. And between the ages of 10 and 12, they feel the need to define themselves in new ways.

It’s at this point—when the physical, emotional and psychological changes begin to fully take hold of teenager’s bodies and minds—that they start to join cliques. Cliques offer kids a social niche, a feeling of security and a place to explore new ways of being. Child researcher Joshua Mandel of New York University says, “By middle and high school, as the issue of belonging becomes even more critical, cliques…become more prominent.” While cliques have their downsides, such as exclusivity, which sometimes translates to social aggression or just plain mean behavior, they have their upsides, too. Mandel writes that “cliques can build self-esteem by making kids feel wanted, and they enable a clique member to develop a sense of identity and regulate social interactions.”

Teen Resources: How to Deal with Cliques

Navigating the byzantine social landscape of middle school and high school can be tough for teenagers. When the exclusive behavior of cliques turns to social bullying, the victim of the bullying rarely wants to appear weak. There’s little chance they’ll turn to school officials for mediation or intervention.

The most important thing parents can do to help teens handle middle and high school cliques is to lay the foundation for making positive social choices long before middle and high school. Teaching children the values of kindness, inclusion, and generosity at an early age will pay dividends when those same children encounter cliques later in life.

It’s never too early – or too late – for a kid to learn what real friendship looks like. It’s based not on how they dress, who they hang out with, what kind of music they listen to, or what kind of parties they go to. Real friendship is based on empathy, altruism, and mutual respect. Adults know this, but kids need to learn it. Sharing personal stories, role playing potential situations and talking openly and honestly with pre-teens about what to expect in middle school and high school will establish lines of communication that will be essential as kids encounter difficult social circumstances – during the tough times, teenagers need parents who will listen, comfort and advise them. If clear channels are established early, it will be much easier for kids to use them later.