Navigating the Popularity Trap

Is your tween or teen in the popular crowd at school? As a parent, do you consider being popular an important goal for your child?

Although we all want our kids to have friends and be well liked, pushing them to hang out with specific friends or groups of friends isn’t always the answer. As parents, we have a direct influence on our child’s popularity from the time they’re babies. Not only can our own experiences with popularity dictate how and what we teach our children about social interactions, but genetics also play a role. If you or your spouse are naturally comfortable in social situations, chances are your children are, too, which can make moving up the popularity ladder much easier. However, not everyone is socially comfortable, so making friends with some of the more outgoing kids may not be that easy. This, in turn, puts the quieter bunch farther down the ladder.

The desire to be popular tends to occur as early as elementary school and reaches its peak during adolescence. What you learn at age 14 about who you are and how the world works will affect how you act later in life. The type of popularity that takes us back to the middle school pecking order is related to status, or a person’s visibility, dominance and influence on others. Unfortunately, one of the quickest ways to gain attention from peers is for kids to act in ways that are aggressive, dominant and powerful. This is how status is formed.

Another type of popularity simply reflects a person’s likability. This is the very first form of popularity that kids experience. Children are always drawn to peers who treat others with respect, who know how to share and cooperate and who make others feel good about themselves. However, once middle school hits, everything changes. Something happens in our brains, and the oxytocin and dopamine take charge.  Oxytocin promotes a need to connect and bond with others, while dopamine activates the brain’s pleasure center, providing the high people feel from drugs. In other words, kids get addicted to any type of attention from their peers.

According to researchers, two groups of teens are most at risk for long-term consequences related to their social status. The first is those who experience repeated rejection from their peers. Teens who experience rejection in high school naturally will expect rejection as adults as well. High-status popularity, though, also carries long-term risk factors with it. Teens whose popularity is grounded solely in status will grow up believing that showing aggression toward others is how to get what they want. They repeat the same patterns from high school. One study followed teens for more than a decade after high school, and the findings showed kids who had the highest status grew up more likely to suffer from relationship problems, addictions, anxiety and depression.

Teens who are less popular but highly likable in high school, however, tend to fare much better in the long run. Likability reflects how much people genuinely want to spend time with us and think we’re kind, friendly and trustworthy. The likable teens grow up having better quality relationships with friends and romantic partners. They’re more successful in their careers and make more money. Research even has shown that the likable bunch also grow up to become better parents and have more well-adjusted children of their own.

A growing body of research says that it’s not the number of friends you have that is important. Simply having intimate friendships brings about long-term benefits, such as higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression. In fact, skills needed to be popular can be at odds with those needed for friendship, such as trust and support. Having one or two good friends is enough to protect against loneliness, and it can boost self-esteem as well as increase academic engagement. When students feel a sense of belonging, they don’t have to worry as much about what’s going on socially in the classroom and can focus on their school work instead.

We parents can find it tempting to dismiss our tween/teen children’s concerns about popularity. We must remember they’re working on figuring out who they are outside of the home, so peer status truly matters to them. Although not all kids can or want to become popular, they do all need to figure out how they will handle peer status. An important role parents can play is the voice for authenticity, compassion and genuine friendship. How? By asking a lot of good questions that encourage kids to think about values, such as:

  • Is she a good friend?
  • How does he make you feel?
  • What do you think the kind thing to do is?
  • Does she talk nicely about others and treat them well?

Remind your child, too, that popularity and friendship are not at all the same. Popularity is political and about rank. Friendship is personal and about relationship. Popularity is much more casual, while friendship is a lot more caring.

Giving our children a social experience other than school is also important. Finding avenues outside of school is great for those teens who may be struggling in the brick and mortar. Help them see all the facets of who they are in a way that’s not tied to school. Are they good at soccer? Basketball? Dance? Gymnastics? Nurture those interests, and they can lead to some wonderful social connections.

Teaching our kids to spend time learning how to be empathetic, good listeners, likable, caring and connected with others will help them develop good friendships that are genuine and long-lasting. And in the end, our children will learn just how much better off they were not being the most popular teen in school.


Being the popular kid always comes with costs. Here are a few you may want to discuss with your child:

  • Being popular requires pleasing. If you want certain people to keep liking you, you must strive to be nice to them.
  • Popularity brings pressure. If you want to belong, you must conform. In other words, you must be like, act like and believe like other members of your group.
  • Popularity isn’t always popular. Some people may admire you, but others will envy you, get jealous and want to bring you down.

Kansas City mom and author Gina Klein found that having a handful of close friends in middle school and high school was the best thing for her. She loves the bonds they formed with each other, and she’s happy to say that they’re all still friends today!

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