Cool Kids

Popularity may not be all it's cracked up to be

Posted Nov 18, 2014

ECHOSMITH’s ever-present pop song sensation “Cool Kids” traces the lives of those too popular to fall and, more poignantly, those just trying to fit in.

Some things never change.

Indeed, while some may pine to be this, that or the other thing, it’s really that desire to be like everyone else that drives the social juggernaut of adolescence.

But behind the façade of the stereotypical cliques crowding the high school hallways are much more nuanced notions of what it means to be cool, or at least popular. There are also longer-term ramifications of teenage social status that may be missed or simply misunderstood by adults and young people alike.

All that jockeying begins early. By the time children reach age 11, most say that they are part of a friendship group or clique. These groups include the “popular” group, the “wannabe” group, the mid-level “friendship” groups and the “social isolation” group. It is interesting to note that the largest groupings occur in the middle friendship circles (Kennedy-Moore, 2013).

And that could be a good thing.

New research from the University of Virginia (Griffiths, 2014) points out, for example, that being popular may not be all it’s cracked up to be. For example, it was revealed that the “cool kids” are just as likely to be bullied as their less popular counterparts and the consequences may be greater. In addition, these young people may be more likely to engage in risk behaviors such as underage drinking, tobacco use and early sexual activity (Kennedy-Moore, 2013).

Perhaps most disturbing is the notion that, in order to remain popular, kids may accelerate extreme behaviors, putting themselves – and perhaps others – at greater risk. It is ironic, if not disheartening, that the body of research on youth popularity also suggests that a cool kid at age 13 may turn out to be a substance abuser or criminal by the age of 22 (ScienceDaily, 2014).

Aspiring to, and attaining, an elevated social status is stressful, exhausting and fraught with danger. Yet young people in the throes of adolescence are necessarily engaged in the process of identity formation and thus are hyper-focused on how others perceive them and, in turn, on how they perceive themselves.

As a part of that developmental paradigm, young people begin to differentiate between their “ideal self” and “real self,” which may leave them coming up short (Boeree, 2006). Similarly, Mary Pipher, Ph.D., author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Pipher, 1994), points to adolescence as a time when many girls put aside their authentic selves to conform to social pressures or risk finding themselves largely on their own (Family Education, 2014).

Similarly, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-authors of the best-selling book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, talk of a “boy code” and conformity to social pressure in adolescence (Kindlon and Thompson, 1999).

In reality, the extent to which girls and boys differ on issues pertaining to identity formation and social behaviors masks the imperative that is helping all of them learn not only to survive this onerous process but also to revel in the discovery and maintenance of self.

And that’s where parents come in. Famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson reminded us that in order to adequately assess their emerging identities, young people rely on the image projected back to them by the significant adults in their lives. In other words, much of what teens think of themselves is a reflection of how they believe we see them (Wallace, 2008).

Translation? In her article “The Popularity Game: Teaching Kids How to Cope,” psychotherapist Sally Sacks, M.Ed., offers some helpful “dos and don’ts,” including these (Sacks, 2007). 

• Do listen to your children’s stories of what is going on with them without passing judgment.

• Do ask questions to elicit what they would like to see happen in their particular social situation.

• Do help your children make choices that teach them how they might experience better success in being noticed or becoming a closer friend.

• Do let them know that believing in themselves and creating what they want is achievable and important.

• Do help them get involved in activities and pursuits that can expose them to new friends and new ideas.

• Do share with them your own stories of social struggles and successes.

Finally, don’t dismiss your children’s concerns simply by making grand statements about how their looks or intellect compare to others or by coaching them “Don’t let it bother you.”

Cool kids come in all shapes and sizes, from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and from both sexes. Our job is helping them to find out and embrace their real, authentic selves.

And that’s really cool.

Stephen Gray Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com. 

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2014 All Rights Reserved

REFERENCES

Boeree, C.G. (2006). Carl Rogers. Personality Theories. Translated from French by Bondareva, K. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/Rogers.html (10 Nov. 2014).

Family Education. (2014). The pressures on adolescent girls. Family Education Network. http://life.familyeducation.com/girls/mothers/54212.html#ixzz3IIcbAYb8 (10 Nov. 2014).

Griffiths, S. (2014). Revenge of the nerds: 'cool kids' at school are more likely to have failed relationships later in life than their geekier peers. Daily Mail Online. June 12, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2656133/Revenge-geeks-Coo... (10 Nov. 2014).

Kennedy-Moore, E. (2013). Popular kids – why are some kids popular?. Psychology Today. December 1, 2013. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/growing-friendships/201312/popular-kids (10 Nov. 2014).

Kindlon, D. and Thompson, M. (1999). Raising Cain: protecting the emotional life of boys. New York: Ballantine Books.

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Putnam.

Sacks, S. (2007). The popularity game: teaching kids how to cope. SheKnows.com. September 28, 2007. http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/7926/the-popularity-game-teac... (10 Nov. 2014).

ScienceDaily. (2014). What happens to “cool” kids? New study sheds light. Society for Research in Child Development. June 12, 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140612085341.htm (10 Nov. 2014).

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing.