How to Help Your Child Cope with Cliques

What to do when your child feels left out socially

coping with cliques - girl left out from group of girls
Coping with cliques can be distressing for school-age children. Vicky Kasala/Getty Images

Feeling left out or snubbed can be terrible, even for adults. Imagine how awful and shattering it must be for a young child, who doesn't have the life experiences and coping skills adults have, to hear words like, "You can't play with us," or "We don't want you to sit here," or "You're not invited to my birthday party." But unfortunately, these examples of relational and social bullying and excluding are all-too-common scenarios among school-age kids.

The good news is that there are concrete ways parents and teachers can intervene to help kids who are coping with cliques and this passive-aggressive type of social bullying.

What Are Cliques?

The first thing parents should know if exactly what defines a clique. While it's normal and healthy for kids to form attachments and make friends and even form close relationships with certain kids more than others, cliques are different from a group of friends in some important ways.

  • Cliques usually have a leader or leaders who decide who will and will not be included.
  • Cliques can form in middle and high school, but can and do start as early as grade school and even kindergarten.
  • Kids who are members of a clique may feel pressure to do things they may not want to do, such as tease or bully someone who is not in the group.

What Parents Can Do

Really listen to what your child says when you ask her how school was, and ask specific questions such as, "Who did you sit with at lunch today?" or "Who did you play with at recess?" If your child seems sad or upset about answering these questions, or says that she didn't sit or play with anyone, ask her why.

Talk to your child's teacher. Your child's teacher is probably aware of the social dynamics in the classroom, and may be able to provide insight into what's going on. She or he is also probably experienced in dealing with cliques and may be able to suggest some solutions to help your child if your child is indeed being excluded by a clique.

Do not assume this is a "part of childhood," or a rite of passage that will make kids stronger, or will just go away if they ignore it. Excluding or social bullying is aggression, no ifs, ands, or buts. Just because aggressive behavior may be something that was common in past generations and may be something certain kids still practice today, it doesn't mean we should allow it to continue, says Tracy Vaillancourt, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. And, most important, research has shown that long-term effects of bullying can last decades afterwards, and is linked to physical and health problems and other setbacks in adulthood.

Encourage your child to play with other kids. When we feel excluded, we naturally try even harder to fit in, says Dr. Vaillancourt. Steer your child toward other children and get the focus away from the mean kids. Set up a play date after school and organize get-togethers with parents and kids who are not part of the clique so that your child forms other healthy friendships.

If your child is part of a clique, talk to her about what that really means and what the downsides are (She may not be allowed to be herself; she may have to do things she doesn't want to do to fit in; excluding other kids is hurtful behavior; etc.). Talk to her about what having power over others means, and encourage empathy by asking her how it might feel to be on the other side, left out, bullied, or excluded.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers can play a crucial role in the formation of cliques. To prevent social groups like this from forming and getting power in the classroom, teachers can make sure they set the stage so that it doesn't happen, says Dr. Vaillancourt. They can break up tight groups that form and pair up different kids with each other regularly and encourage all kids to work with each other.

Both parents and teachers can and should make an effort to guide kids in the right direction so that kids learn about things like cooperation and kindness, not skills that speak to the worst parts of human behavior such as meanness and contempt. "We so often focus on the three "R's" of education but we neglect the first "R" of education--relationships," says Dr. Vaillancourt.

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