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Cliques and Fitting In

(Brought to you by National PTA)

A Chicago mom confesses that her beautiful sixth-grade daughter cries in her room nightly, afraid she won't look right tomorrow and she will lose her standing in her group at school.

A teacher in Lake Placid, New York, reports that her smart 13-year-old son announced, "Mom, I'm going to fail that science test tomorrow. I just have to, or I won't have any friends."

A need to belong emerges with a vengeance during early adolescence. At some point during the ages of 10 through 15, your child discovers that a whole world exists beyond your family: peers. As an overwhelming desire to fit in takes center stage, a child's thoughts and reactions revolve around his or her interests with friends and peers.

This shift away from parents and family is natural -- a young adolescent's task is to figure out who he or she is. The peer group serves as a panel, helping its members define themselves.

Cliques deal in social power. As peers divide up, children form into cliques around a leader or two and the pack lets it be known that not everybody is welcome. Certain children are dubbed "worthy" while others are judged "not good enough."

Cliques and peer groups have strict rules: whom to talk to, sit with, dress like. Acting out of sync means facing criticism -- and since all young adolescents are supersensitive to criticism, many have difficulty standing up for themselves or for what's right. So cliques rule.

Yet even though establishing a place in the peer group is riddled with danger, most middle-schoolers need to find that sense of belonging. Parents can really be of assistance in helping their child find that sense of belonging in healthy and positive ways.

As a start, empathize with your children's desire to belong and show that you accept their social desires. Invite their friends into your home, and be available to talk or listen to your children's efforts at fitting in.

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