What to Do When Cliques Form

What to Do When Cliques Form

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Helping children who are excluded

Around the age of 4, groups of friends bonded by the same interests are often formed. Several children may enjoy playing monsters at the park together or building cities in the block corner at preschool. Sometimes these groups can exclude other children. Yes, this is how cliques begin to form.

Your little preschooler might arrive home crying one day because a group of children told her, “You can’t play with us.” At this age, your little socialite is facing more complicated social interactions than ever before and will need your support and some perspective. Here are some ways you can help her enter this brave new world.

You can explain to her that sometimes groups of children enjoy playing together, and are so happy that they don’t want anyone else to join them. Remind her of the time she was having fun playing tag with her cousins and didn’t want her little brother included.

Talk about how it made her feel when the children excluded her at school. Explain that it is natural to feel left out, sad, and angry when this happens. Sharing some of your own experiences will help her to see that this social interaction is just a part of life.

Reassure her that the kids did not exclude her because she did something wrong. These children just have a special friendship. Understanding her feelings about the experience can help her to be kinder to others when the shoe is on the other foot.

Teach her some skills to use when approaching a group. Children do not naturally know how to become involved. She can ask, “Can I play?” or suggest a role she can take in their game: for instance, “I can be Cookie Monster.”

If the children want to be alone, however, she should look for some other playmates. Share with her how you handle these social situations. For example, you might tell her that when you go to a party, you find one person who looks nice and spend time talking with her.

Point out that it was not right for the children to be mean to her. If they wanted to play alone, they should have told her nicely that they needed to finish their game. If they are ever mean again, she should tell them, “It’s wrong to be mean,” and get help from the teacher.

Sometimes arranging for playdates with one or more of the youngsters in a group will help your child to gain acceptance. If your child becomes a member, it is important to support her participation, “It’s nice that you have a group of friends,” while instructing her to make sure to allow others to join in the play.

As they grow older, children form cliques that can take on a more intense meaning. Often in the middle school years, a child who feels lonely or unloved at home becomes the leader of a group of friends that tries to elevate itself, at the expense of others. The leader generally has an overwhelming need to feel better than everyone, because deep down, he or she doesn’t feel valued. Belittling and excluding others makes these children feel powerful and more special.

The leaders may abuse their power over their friends to bully and hurt others. The children who follow the leader feel compelled to do everything the leader says to remain in the group. Many do this because they enjoy feeling popular, or they have an underlying emotional need to feel “special” that is similar to the leader’s.

Children who are being excluded by a clique often suffer a great deal. If your child has this problem, you will need to explain the underlying reasons for these children’s behavior to help your child from taking the rejection personally. You can also teach your child skills for handling confrontations with members of the clique. For instance, suggest that your child walk away if someone is bullying her or tell the other child, “You are being rude.”

If your child faces daily altercations with a clique at school, contact your school for help. The professionals can monitor the situation and intervene to support your child. Spending quality time with your child and helping her to build other friendships will bolster her self-confidence and help her overcome the situation.