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The popularity game: Teaching kids how to cope

As a mother and a professional therapist, my heart has been broken many times listening to the tales of life in the fast lane of 5th and 6th grade girls. I have likened the experiences to that of prisoners trying to get through their day unharmed, by knowing the right people and keeping their mouths shut. Apparently there is and will always be a social order, of who is best and who is not, and the who is not will always suffer.
The 'popular kids' are always the same. I was in school 40 years ago, and it was the same as kids describe now. The kids that wear the expensive clothes, Abercrombie, American Eagle, Hollister are the big ones now, and play sports, and can do school well, be cheery and outgoing , (and a big huge home helps), become popular. The kids who are not the straight cookie cutter variety, often are left out, misunderstood, or considered weird . The popular kids either deliberately or inadvertently make life hell for the others.

As a parent, watching kids go through this is very difficult, sad and anger provoking. Kids will come to me in counseling and tell me that they sit all day in fear of a girl dissing them, embarrassing them or rolling their eyes at another girl about them. These kids are terrified to speak up because then their reputation will be ruined. They can't tell a teacher because going for outside help is a sign of weakness. And most assured, going for help will cause reason for retaliation. Kids, due to this stressful experience, get stomach aches, anxiety, and all kinds of medical ailments, that are stress, turned inward to the body.

The kids need tools to deal with this problem.

As a parent careful thought is needed because it is easy to say the wrong thing and anger your child, or render them feeling more helpless. Here are some wrong ways to handle it. The following are comments that DO NOT work.

  1. Do not tell your child that she is prettier than that girl that thinks she is all that, and the girl is just jealous. This isn't believable to your child and isn't the point, therefore doesn't offer a tool to solve the problem. The child will have a come back for you about how not helpful you are.

  2. Do not tell your child not to let it bother them, and that they are fine the way they are. The child will tell you how you don't get it, and that this is their life. How dare you make light of a huge problem, and tell them they are fine the way they are, when clearly they aren't or the others would like them more.

  3. Do not tell your child how much smarter and interesting they are than the others. Don't criticize the others for their emphasis on Abercrombie and other trendy stores, saying that you find them stupid and unnecessary. Children want to fit in. They don't have that level of reasoning capacity.

Kids need to know what to do when they are in this situation. Here are examples of what to do to actually help your child. The first thing to do is:

  1. Listen to your child's story of what is going on for them without making judgment. Hear them out. Empathize with their difficulty without overreacting, or under reacting. They need someone they can trust and talk to.

  2. After they tell their story, ask them non judgmental questions, trying to understand what they would like to see happen in their situation. For example, I had a child who was upset because 12 kids in her class planned on going to the park together. She and her 4 friends were not invited. She felt unpopular, hurt and left out. I asked her what she wanted, and she said to be able to go with them. She felt she couldn't just invite herself, she'd look too desperate. I asked her why she thought she might be left out. Without judgment, this question helped her to think at a higher level than she had been.

  3. Explain kid's behavior to your kids. Sometimes kids leave people out because they don't see you all the time, or feel if they ask you, they have to ask all your friends. Sometimes they need to know you better. Sometimes it may not be deliberate. In the case of the girl above, I gave her an example of how she might ask to go without being intrusive or too needy. Sometimes asking is a good thing. Sometimes you have to be assertive to be included. Take your child's lead and ask what they think about this. What would be hard about this for them, or not so hard about asking to join in? Listen again without judgment. Gather facts and work with them.

  4. Try to help your child make more choices and expand their thinking by widening the idea of, "They don't like me; I'm not cool", to maybe they overlooked it, or they couldn't have more kids and had to pick their closest friends. Teach them how they might be noticed more or become a closer friend.

  5. Let them know that believing in themselves and creating what they want for themselves is possible and necessary. Let them know how fortunate they are to have the close friends that they have and how to even meet more friends if their group is getting thinner, which it does.

  6. Help them to get involved in activities that connect them to new friends and new ideas and options in their lives. Go for the take action strategy to change the things you don't like in your life, and waste less energy feeling bad about things. This is a lesson everyone must learn to get ahead in their lives.

  7. Share examples with them about you, and overcoming those painful social school experiences.
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