Peer groups and the pressure to fit in: help your daughter avoid succumbing to the popularity game

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Peer groups and the pressure to fit in: help your daughter avoid succumbing to the popularity game

Being popular is often the ultimate prize in movies, TV shows and even at school. But for your daughter to be truly confident, learn how to talk to her about social status in an empowering way.

Mention ‘being popular’ to a group of grown women and they will each flash back to their own experience in elementary school, high school, college and beyond. For someone to be in, someone else has to be out, and many of us were on the outside of peer groups looking in.

What did it take to be in with the ‘cool’ peer group? Often it was something none of us would wish for our own daughters: fear, sacrifice, looking ‘right’ to fit in, and competitive socialising. There have even been reports of greater increases in levels of delinquency and drug use among popular adolescents. Not a healthy recipe for a strong girl.

The thing about popularity and trying to fit in with a peer group is that, in many cases, it isn’t sustainable by being a good friend. It takes other kinds of work. Sure, a competitive spirit is healthy, but not when it comes to friendship. The healthiest social lives are often the ones centred on a close group of trusted friends, and yet many girls focus on fitting in and being the best liked, without regard for who is behind the liking. Early on, the chase for popularity is not about being internally strong, it is about looking a certain way or having the right colour notebook. This puts an unhealthy emphasis on superficial qualities such as body shape, skin tone or hair style and can lead girls to emphasise their physical being over their internal one. Kids who focus on popularity when young set themselves up for a host of potential problems.

“Encouraging a healthy social life starts very early on in a girl’s life,” says parenting expert Dana Entin. “It’s about them learning to acknowledge, accept and value their inner sensibilities and feel comfortable with who and what they are.”

So how do we talk to girls about social status without pushing them into the popularity trap? How do you give your daughter the tools to navigate her social life and protect her self-esteem?

Replace BFF with GF

Imagine if your daughter had money to invest. Would you recommend she spend it all on one stock or that she diversify? You would want her to spread the risk, right? It is the same with friendships.

The concept of the best friend can be a dangerous one because the expectations on this friendship are often too intense and can lead to dependence and, worse, bad break-ups. When we overinvest in only one friendship, chances are we will be disappointed. Instead of one ‘BFF’, steer your daughter towards a peer group made up of a few ‘GFs’ – Great Friends. Explain that in your own social network you have one friend who makes you laugh, another who you turn to when you have a problem, another with whom you go shopping and share beauty tips, another that you like to exercise with…

As Entin explains, it’s good for kids to maintain a variety of friendships in their peer group and to understand that each of these friendships fulfils a different need. It’s an outlook parents can help foster. “When girls get these messages at home, they will seek out relationships where they feel respected and honored for their individual nature,” she says.

Define a great friend and talk about fitting in

Until our kids are adults, they are still struggling to figure out friendships, fitting in with peer groups, and social lives; you can play a big role in helping them to define what a great friend is and see the value of a solid and reliable friendship. When you are watching a movie with your child, see it as an opportunity to point out the social dynamics, particularly of groups of teenagers. Steer conversations about her friends away from what they look like or how they dress, and ask what qualities your daughter likes about them. If your daughter comes home from school with a story, resist the urge to criticise and instead play narrator: “So, Suzy did that to Ava? What did you think of that?”

My daughter once asked me what I thought of one of her friends. “Do you think Lauren is nice?” she inquired. I had been observing Lauren and my daughter for weeks now and didn’t like the way my daughter was being treated. But I bit my tongue and instead said: “If she makes you feel great about yourself inside, then I love her. I like any friend who makes you feel awesome.”

Every time your daughter opens up to you about anything going on at school or in her life, see it as a window – your opportunity to get a sliver of information about her peer group and what really goes on in her world each day. And what can close that window? Criticism, judgement and disapproval. Your goal is that as your daughter gets older, she comes to rely on you as a trusted advisor and a safe harbor should she face a problem. The best way to ensure your role is to make it easy for her to open up to you now.

Avoid projecting your own fear of not fitting in

As parents, we often come to the table with our own social issues, body hang-ups and backgrounds. One of the greatest challenges we face is to avoid projecting our own feelings onto our child.

One mom, Sandy, found herself with a predicament. Her daughter came home from school and talked about some friends having laughed at her for sitting alone at lunch. Her daughter is a confident kid and was genuinely nonplussed by the incident, explaining that those were silly girls who she isn’t friends with. Yet Sandy was understandably heartbroken on behalf of her daughter, and though her instinct was to make a big deal of it, she took her daughter’s cues and moved on.

The idea of popularity and the importance of fitting in often emanates from the parents rather than the kids. Popularity is a concept that can be at the forefront of our minds in the tween years. This natural, age-appropriate concern can happen prematurely if parents emphasise popularity and being well-liked over finding good friends – and being one in return.

Follow instead the example of Laura, a mom in Los Angeles, who empowers her daughter by reminding her, “You are a great friend and it is your choice who to share your friendship with.”

Author Samantha Ettus, lifestyle and parenting expert.

*To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of the people mentioned on these pages, but the stories they tell are absolutely genuine.

Action checklist:
How to steer your daughter towards a healthy social life

Don’t badmouth her friends. If you do, she is likely to stop telling you about them. Instead say things like, “Does Molly make you feel great inside? If she does, then she sounds like a great friend.”

Focus on her unique qualities. Help her to see her individuality as a gift. Point out people who seem to follow others without thinking for themselves and find those that march to the beat of their own drums.

Help her hang on to her individuality. While her natural desire to fit in with a peer group might mean she ends up dressing like her friends, keep her talking about styles she likes and feels good in. Encourage her to slip a little individuality into her outfit – a quirky necklace, a T-shirt of her favourite band or shoes in her favorite colour, for example.

Monitor her media diet. Many movies and TV shows glamorize popularity and this often has a significant impact on how girls see their own social lives. Protect your daughter by keeping a close watch on age-appropriate TV and movies and actively seeking out storylines with strong female characters.

Empower her. Remember the advice of Laura from Los Angeles, who tells her daughter, “You are a great friend and it is your choice who to share your friendship with.”

What next: Action steps to encourage your daughter's social resilience

  • Share with daughter
  • Spread the friendships. Encourage multiple sets of friends. If she has sport friends, club or camp friends and theatre friends, her school friends should occupy less of her energy. Each peer group is likely to have less sway over her and she may benefit from the confidence that comes with having different social groups.
  • Create a strong family culture. When a girl is raised in a loving and supportive home, she can be less likely to be influenced wholly by her friends. Actions and words are both important here. Reminding her that she has a strong family that she can always count on is critical, as well as creating a structured reliable home and family rituals and traditions.
  • Keep her stimulated. The under-scheduled child is often an even bigger risk than the over-scheduled one. When your daughter is involved in something she enjoys and is passionate about, whether it’s a sport or guitar lessons or coding, she is likely to have less time to obsess over not fitting in or the popularity game.

Our experts

  • Jess Weiner

    Jess Weiner CEO of Talk To Jess and Dove Global Self-Esteem Ambassador

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