BFFs or bullies? Navigating the world of cliques

CliquesBy Kristy MacKaben

In elementary school, Alexus Johnson of Crofton desperately wanted friends.

Slightly awkward and shy, Alexus was constantly excluded from cliques and shunned by other girls in her class. When a fifth-grade classmate threatened Alexus with a knife, her mother pulled her out of school.

"She was just a little girl trying to fit in," says Alexus' mother Thomasina Johnson.

After that, Johnson decided to home school Alexus, now 17, and her five younger siblings who range in age from 3 to 11. Her older stepson Terrance, now 18, stayed in public school.

Though Alexus' experiencee is extreme, many kids are affected by cliques every day. Cliques aren't inherently evil. Take out the drama and bullying and cliques are basically groups of friends. Most kids desire to belong to a group and when they're left out, it doesn't feel good, says Dr. Susan Swearer, professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska and developer of the Bullying Research Network.

Children, especially girls, can begin forming cliques as early as preschool, Swearer says. Kids find friends with similar interests; they stick together and form a group.

"The purpose of cliques is to create friendship groups based on mutual interests or commonalities. Basically that means birds of a feather flock together," Swearer says.

This is true at Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrolton where (mostly female) cliques are based on race and culture. At the school, where the student body is 60 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African American, girls form cliques with other girls who look and act like them, says Dr. William Clay, seventh grade counselor at Charles Carroll.

"They form their cliques around their cultural similarities and their hobbies based on what's popular in their culture," says Clay.

Some cliques in the school can be snobby or exclusionary, but Clay says others are just groups of friends who hang around together.

"I don't think that they carry themselves better than anyone else," Clay says. "They're just a clique. They're just BFFs."

Eighth grader Jazmyn Berry says she and her four friends are a "nice clique." They became friends about five years ago when they first started going to school together.

"We just hang out a lot," Berry says. Along with being "nice girls," Berry says she and her friends aren't ready for boyfriends and they do well in school.

Mean girls (and boys)

Even though Berry and her group consider themselves a clique, they would allow other girls to join, as long as "they're nice and kind and not mean," Berry says.

When cliques begin to exclude others, bullying often follows, Swearer explains.

"When they become negative is when they become exclusionary, and then you see bullying," Swearer says.

Other cliques of girls at Charles Carroll can be mean or cause trouble, Berry says.

"I don't like the way they treat other people, so I stay away from them," she explains.

Lloyd Boldeau, another eighth grader at Charles Carroll, agrees that a lot of the kids in cliques can be mean. Boldeau says he doesn't get involved in the drama, but kids in the cliques have hurt some of his friends. "I choose not to be in a clique because I find it disrespectful," Boldeau says. "In my friends' experiences they end up angry, sad or just annoyed."

If your kid is the outcast

Rejection hurts, and it could possibly sting worse for the parent. No one wants his or her child to feel like the outcast. If it happens, Swearer advises parents to boost their children's confidence and make them understand they have a lot to offer any group of friends.

"It's important to talk to kids about why being in that group is important," Swearer says. "Empower kids to understand that if a group is excluding [them], then they're not being very nice."

At G. James Gholson Middle School in Kent, most cliques form around dominant females, and then some of the "unpopular kids" are excluded or bullied, says Crystal McElrath, school counselor.

"Not feeling included can do a lot more to someone's emotional state than someone talking about them," McElrath explains. "Students that are ostracized often internalize things and that's a dangerous place to be."

Communication between parents and children is extremely important, McElrath says. Parents can listen and help their children problem-solve. Children should be encouraged to form their own groups or to forgot belonging to a clique altogether.

Kids who "float" from one clique to another and have many different friends, are often the happiest and healthiest socially, Swearer says. Belonging to one particular group shouldn't define anyone.

It can also help if kids are involved in activities outside of school, so that they can form friendships elsewhere. Youth groups, sports, art, theatre or music classes can be opportunities for friendships. "Having a multitude of friends in different contexts teaches them social skills," Swearer says.

If your kid is the bully

Just around the time Thomasina Johnson was dealing with Alexus' social struggles, she was engulfed in her stepson Terrance's issues. Terrance was an outcast for different reasons — he was a "bully," according to teachers, students and administrators at his elementary school. "He was stabbing kids with pencils," Johnson says.

The vastly different experiences of Alexus and Terrance prompted Johnson to write two children's books: one about Terrance titled simply "The Bully" and the other about Alexus, "Mama, When Will I be Popular?"

"I was on the one hand seeing this little girl running after the wrong people. Then, you have him and everyone ran away from him because they were scared of him," Johnson says.

After homeschooling the children for six years, Johnson enrolled them in public school last January. Not long after they started school, the mother noticed that cliques affected even the younger children. While Ashlee, 11, tended to be left out of the crowd, Amber, 9, was a ringleader and "borderline mean girl," Johnson says.

Parents need to have a zero tolerance policy for bullying or exclusive cliques, says Swearer. Children should know it's OK to choose their friends, but it's not OK to be hurtful, she says.

"You don't have to be best friends with everybody, but you can't be mean or exclusionary," Swearer says. Set consequences and make children understand the behavior is unacceptable. "Reward being nice and kind, and always communicate."

Raising seven kids has given Johnson the perspective that all children truly are different. Some might naturally fit in at school, while others are socially awkward and might struggle.

"They have to find their fit," says Johnson. "As a parent you can help them do that."

Five tips to help your child navigate the world of cliques

1. Communicate. Encourage your child to be as open and honest as possible.
If your child refuses to talk to you, help him find someone else to talk to: a trustworthy adult like a grandparent, coach or guidance counselor.

2. Help your child realize that he doesn't have to belong to a clique to fit in at school. Ask your child why he wants to be friends with kids in a clique who are being mean.

3. Expose your children to different experiences and involve them in a variety of activities. This will give them the opportunity to make friends outside of school.

4. Make your child understand he can choose his friends, but he does have to be kind to everyone. Set consequences if you discover your child being a bully or exclusionary.

5. Pay attention and trust your instinct. If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't.