The Pressure to Be Popular

By Gina Roberts-Grey

     The desire to fit in can be overwhelming for children.  Our children look to model the examples of popularity they see on television and in magazines.  They equate being part of a specific group with social status, personal accomplishments and good fortune.  Fitting in – or feeling as though you don’t fit in – can affect a child’s self esteem, grades, and communication and leadership skills.

    While most would associate the pressures of popularity with teens and high school, it is surprising to learn that children begin to form social groups and standards as early as first grade.  They gravitate towards classmates for a variety of reasons such as personality, ability and the added stress of the physical changes that puberty and the teens bring often sends teens and tweens in search of a social group to feel safe in.

    Attending school, sports practice or extra-curricular classes may seem brutally unpleasant to a child who feels he doesn’t ‘belong’.  Some children try to blend into the melting pot of styles, ideals and opinions represented in the halls of their school in the hopes of not being viewed as different or original.  Others opt for a contrasting strategy of intentionally trying to stand out in the hopes of somehow fitting into a crowd of ‘originals’ or ‘social misfits’. 

What they learn in school

    High school teacher Liz Maurin has seen how the quest to be popular can be overpowering, and unfortunately turn ugly.  “Kids resort to behavior that borders on dangerous just to get the attention of a member of the opposite sex or to break into a clique.  They’ve learned how to manipulate situations and words just to be popular”

    Spreading rumors, telling lies or being intentionally hurtful are just a few of the scenarios our children face daily amidst their peers.  It can be difficult for adults to navigate through the various pressure situations you face.  For a child or teenager, it can be nearly impossible to stand up to the mounting pressure to be popular. 

    Maurin, a foreign language teacher in Barrington, IL has seen some of her students teeter on the verge of a breakdown from the pressure to get into the ‘in’ crowd.  “Kids will intentionally ruin their GPA’s because they don’t want to be considered too smart.  They’ll defy their parents, teachers and counselors just to go along with what their group is doing.”

    In a study at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found evidence to support what Maurin sees in the halls of her school.  They learned that young people connect risky behavior with popularity. 

The study also found that nearly 75% of teens believe their peers who are perceived as popular were more likely to engage in drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or pot, or gambling than their “unpopular” ones. “Young people believe that cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol are easily accessible, and many believe that the popular kids drink and smoke cigarettes or marijuana,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  “Since popular kids shape the norms that influence the attitudes and behaviors of those their age, this combination of popularity and accessibility is a dangerous mix.”

Countering the pressure

  Whether it’s experimenting with teen drinking, sexual activity, or contemplating an embarrassing round of truth or dare, you can help your child develop a strong mental and emotional constitution to weather the storm of popularity pressure.  “Providing a stable support network is the first step in overcoming peer pressure” says Child Advocate Specialist Diana Derby.  “Kids need to know they have options to the pressured choices they face among their peers.”

    Maintaining open lines of communication with your child helps them make clear and safe choices.  Talking about the circumstances and decisions you faced as a teen are helpful, but listening objectively to his scenarios will give you valuable insight into your child’s life. 

    Understanding what he views as important will provide a starting point.  Whether making the football team or cheerleading squad, or being invited to a party or dance are the priority, it’s important to understand what your child is attempting to accomplish socially. 

    If your daughter’s looking to replace her junior high look with one that’s more mature and suited to high school, you’re a more stable adviser than a friend helping her apply make-up in the bathroom between classes.  Talking to your inquisitive child about the tastes, effects and consequences of alcohol may satisfy some curiosities he might otherwise explore as a result of pressure from friends.

    Children battling the pressure to be popular need a positive support structure.  Dr. Cheryl Browne-Ojei of Kaiser Hospital, Harbor City, CA works to provide at-risk children a safe haven to express themselves while feeling they belong to a group of their peers.  She helps children build their self esteem through positive situations and examples. 

    Giving a child who feels he or she doesn’t fit in the chance to positively impact a situation helps their confidence soar.  They’ll be more likely to stand up for themselves at school or sports practice.  SFM

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer who often writes on the subjects of families and children.