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She came home from school in tears. Her best friend for years dumped her to get in with the "popular" girls. "I don't know what to do. Should I switch schools?", she asked.

"What do I say to my bright, caring, sensitive daughter who is feeling alone and left out?"

I could hear the pain in her mother's heart right through the phone.

Here's the thing:

Starting in middle school, and sometimes even earlier, tweens and teens can spend a lot of time worrying about popularity. This is when their world seems to be changing, when a social pecking order starts to take shape, and many are worried about where they fit in.

For tweens and teens, their identity and their social life is one and the same.

It’s developmentally normal for teens to allow their social life—and their worries about it—to take up more of their time and attention than when they were younger.

Everyone begins talking about who is “most popular,” or “cool,” or who seems to have the most followers on Instagram or whatever. And “most popular” or “cool” or whatever the kids are calling it these days equals STATUS.

The reason why status is a big deal starting around middle school has a lot to do with how their bodies start to change. Scientific studies show that part of maturing affects how your brain responds to people around you, and right now it is kind of hyper-focused to care about social relationships. An adolescent's brain starts to become really tuned in to who is getting attention, who seems powerful, and who's influential.

The reality in most cases is, actually different. The kids who are most popular (that is, having the highest status) actually aren’t very well liked. Among girls especially, the high-status crowd is disliked by many of their peers. And, this often gets carried into adulthood.

It’s important to understand that this kind of popularity, this STATUS, that teens and pre-teens care about, can actually be bad for you. Some of the high-status kids are mean to others by being bullies or gossips, or making other people feel bad about themselves. (Have you seen "Mean Girls"?)

Popularity, particularly in middle school, is a double-edged sword. Kids who are popular in middle school also tend to be more likely to engage in risky behavior, like substance abuse and skipping school.

We all want our kids to have friends and to feel accepted, We ache for them when they come home feeling rejected – or dejected; when they are not invited to the party or the dance. Or are snubbed by a one-time “friend”


Understand that everything feels bigger to teens and pre-teens, and that’s okay. Kids this age have heightened emotional responses. You may feel protective and want to react. Instead, support your kids; let them talk it out. Brainstorm ideas.

Listen, with empathy, to what's going on. Be supportive. Validate the feelings. Let them know that they are not alone; many kids feel like an outcast during the middle and high school years. Remind them of their strengths.

Help your kid learn how to identify and shift negative self-talk and how to proactively develop positive self-talk (it’s not you, it’s them) so they can become more confident in their own bodies; help them to build resilience. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

Be proactive. Don't wait until this becomes an issue. Start young and be consistent.


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