Let’s face it, in some ways very little has changed since you and I were in high school. The cliques (now called squads) still exist, teachers play favorites, girls fight over boys and teen girls freak out about a pimple.
However in other ways the game has completely changed and the stakes are much higher. Girls are harming themselves, even considering suicide over the drama that takes place. 24/7 access to their peers has brought an entirely different level of pressure, one their brains and emotions are not equipped to handle just yet.
I talk a lot about “the populars” in my office either working with them or with girls who have encountered them and fallen victim to the competition. Popularity in today’s middle school and high school environments is all about power.
When I listen to the stories of what goes down at school, online and at events it has struck me over the years that many of the girls deemed “popular” are girls that both guys and girls are afraid of in some way. I often hear “she is actually super rude” or “she is mean and fake”. “She is nice to your face or when she wants something but she really doesn’t care”. It is definitely NOT about these girls being well liked. On a rare occasion there is a girl deemed popular who most like but she will not typically run in the main crowd of populars.
It’s funny though, when I talk with girls about these groups there is still always a sense of wanting to be in “the group”. There is sadness to being left out and a strong desire to be on the inside.
Populars do tend to rule the school and even though many won’t admit it, most of the teens are watching them. They set the trends. They determine coolness. This continues. Their Instagram feeds are FULL of followers and are examined carefully. The groups that act like they don’t care actually do and they want to know what this group is up to, even if it’s just to talk about them. They care.
They project a lot of control around school. It's hard to explain to parents but there is an underlying tension with the populars and everyone else. It can be the way they look, laugh, ask questions and post to social media that creates this odd sense of control.
Girls who were once in this group can quickly be turned on and thrown out which can be devastating.
Maybe she was dating someone in the “populars” and they break up. Now she is left to fend for herself. This can be heart-breaking because even though the group may not have been the best environment, it is still important to remember it was her squad and trying to find a new one in middle and high school can be extremely difficult.
It’s not so simple to try and reestablish yourself at this age. By high school many have their group and they really don’t let others in very often. This is a universal problem.
Often times a girl is removed from the group and she has no idea why. This creates a huge sense of insecurity and stress. She is constantly assessing what she could have done or said to have them turn on her. The problem is that often these girls are struggling with their own insecurities and can choose to reject a member out of jealousy, threat or just to intimidate.
It happened to my daughter now what?
If this has happened to your daughter it is so important to validate her emotions. It is extremely painful and the situation can turn ugly quick. Let her vent. Try not to get involved unless there is threat of harm. You will want to rescue her. She may want to leave the school but be careful not to make an emotional decision. She will recover from this but it may take time.
Encourage her to seek out new people and that might mean getting her involved in a new activity so she meets new people. Find older kids at school she can talk to who may be protective in some way. Beware of her jumping right into a dating relationship because that might be a tactic to not be alone. She is vulnerable at this stage.
She will need a lot of empathy from you. It may feel as if her life is literally falling apart. Keep her occupied with family and friends outside of school. She will need some extra attention and care and that is OK. There is a grief involved in the loss and she has to mourn it. I encourage girls to try and find just 1 other person at school so she isn't so alone. Lunch can be brutal. Help her think through who she could sit with, even if it's a guy friend.
Finally, one thing I have observed and been told by numerous moms over the years in dealing with the populars is that often their parents, especially moms are part of the problem. Moms are mean to other moms and moms get involved to the point that they ignore the ousted girl as well. This is a whole separate issue that we should discuss at some point but I bring it up because it is a reality.
Teen girls learn from the adults around them. They listen to how you talk to your friends and about your friends. They watch and play out what they see. It's really important to model to them how to have healthy friendships with women.
Popularity and competition with teen girls is a problem that will never go away but we can try to teach girls how to deal with it and why striving for it isn't what it seems. Help them understand the power involved and that popularity doesn't mean that a girl is well liked. It often means they are feared.