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Adolescence and the pursuit of popularity.

Adolescents pursue popularity for social security and self-esteem.

Come early adolescence (around ages 9 - 13) an age of more dislike begins.

First there is more dislike of self as "child." Separating from childhood is how adolescence begins. The young person rejects being defined and treated as a little boy or little girl he or she used to be, but in some ways regretfully still is. Now there is a desired to be identified as "older" and more "grown up." (When puberty arrives there is usually additional cause for self-dislike as bodily changes create more painful self-consciousness and social embarrassment.)

Second, there is more dislike for parents and from parents. Courting disapproval by actively and passively contesting authority at home to assert more independence, the young person feels more frequently in parental disfavor, and becomes more critical of them.

And third, there is more dislike of family. By striving to establish distance from childhood by becoming different from the child he or she was, the young person feels less similar to and less comfortable with those at home. There is a sense of no longer socially fitting in.

The onset of adolescence brings a degree of alienation from self, parents, and family. As one young man put it; "Home is where you have to live when you're not hanging out with your friends." It's not that young person and parents love each other any less, only that they frequently dislike each other more. This can be a beleaguered time of life.

So where is lost liking to be recovered? For most young people, the answer is in the company of friends who one feels like, who one likes, and who give liking in return. But finding friends, and keeping friends, and staying friends is an enormous challenge because everyone is changing just like you. Everyone is feeling more alienated from family just like you, is filled with self-doubt just like you, and is feeling cast adrift into a world of acting older just like you. The developmental insecurity of early adolescence has arrived.

This is why striving for social connection and place among peers becomes so desperately important, and why more social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, ganging up) is the outgrowth of this competition, particularly during the late elementary and middle school years.

At this hard time, the propaganda of popularity can be pretty persuasive: become popular and all your worries and problems about social belonging with peers will be solved! The more liked you are, the more you'll fit in, the more secure you will feel, and the less social meanness will come your way. Now begins what one young person described as the "better than/not as good as game" of social comparison in which everyone suffers by making how others are the measure of one's own self-worth.

Popularity means you have a well-established social place among peers who want to be with you, with whom you have social standing, with whom you can hang out, and who can provide the accepting companionship you need.

So at school, group affiliation is often signified by a certain gathering space, a physical place, like a hallway or courtyard at breaks or a table at lunch. If you have a place to hang out that means you have a gang of friends.

Characteristics such as getting good grades, following rules, working hard, and being helpful can all create a lot popularity with teachers, but these traits are unlikely to engender popularity with peers who place more value on looks, confidence, outspokenness, possessions, dress, knowing what's "in," being athletic, and acting social.

What you don't want is to be unpopular because then, unaffiliated and unprotected, you are left to make your way alone. Be labeled unpopular and peers may ignore or avoid you because they fear being known by the company they keep.

Befriending an unpopular person can increase their risk of unpopularity that is often treated as a contagious social disease that can be caught through public association. So one girl explains why she no longer talks or sits by another: "I don't want to be seen with her and have other people get the wrong idea we're friends."

It is here that parents might want to weigh in on what this restrictive definition of popularity can socially cost. They can talk to their young person about the larger society that she will be entering as an adult that will be filled with enormous human variation. In this more complex world, the capacity to get to know and get along with many different kinds of people will have a bearing on how well she makes her way. Then they can explain how now is a preparation for later. If she "small sizes" her relationships as she grows up by restricting them to a small safe social clique, she risks diminishing her adult capacity to get along in a much more diverse world.

Finally, parents might want to forewarn their son or daughter who is bent on popularity that to get to be popular and to stay popular, there can be a price to be paid. They can itemize common costs that sometimes come with being very popular.

Popularity requires pleasing - you must strive to be nice to people who you want to keep liking you.

Popularity briings pressure -- to belong you have to conform, being like, behaving like, believing like other members of your group.

Popularity takes being current - you have to look cool, keep up with what's happening, and stay cutting edge.

Popularity is precarious - people can vote you in and they can vote you out, and "elections" can be held at a moment's notice when you accidentally offend or someone "better" comes along.

Popularity is partly unpopular - while some people admire you, others envy you, can get jealous, and want to bring you down.

Popularity attracts imitators - people act like you so they can be liked by you, and liked by others by acting like you.

Popularity breeds insincerity - you may often fake being nice to people, and people may often fake being nice to you.

Popularity is confusing - sometimes you wonder if people want to be your friend because of who you are or because you're popular.

Popularity attracts attention - you are noticed more, judged more, your flaws and failings are more closely observed, and you are more gossiped about.

Popularity is competitive - since so many people want to be popular, you have to perform your best against your rivals every day.

Popularity can go to your head - popular people can believe their own reviews and act special or entitled, injuring friendships they thought secure.

Popularity can be limiting - the more you invest in popularity at school, the less you are likely to invest in creating a social life outside of school.

Popularity can be demeaning - people who pursue popularity will sometimes accept mistreatment from more popular people just to be accepted.

Most important, popularity and friendship are not the same. Popularity is political; friendship is personal. Popularity is about rank; friendship is about relationship. Popularity is more casual; friendship is more caring.

So what beats trying to be really popular? Consider just being content with having a few close friends you can trust, acquaintances that can be fun to be with, and having the capacity to enjoy the pleasure of your own company when you are alone.

Consider even taking time with family - that lifelong group that will still be with you long after most of these peers, who seem so important now, will have grown up and gone their separate ways.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Ambitious adolescents.

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