Help Your Kids Navigate Cliques

Part of growing up is learning to navigate cliques.


Parents may be desperate to help their child learn the social skills to do so, but it’s often hard to know where to start.

Carrie Goldman, speaker and award-winning author of “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear,” says cliques can form as early as third grade, often peaking in middle school.

When dealing with cliques, parents need to know when a group moves from being a bunch of friends to becoming a clique.

Goldman explains that having a core group of friends with similar interests is a good thing, but it is important that parents discuss with kids what a clique is and that having a close circle of friends is fine as long as it is welcoming and respectful to people who are not part of the inner circle.

“We start seeing friend groups become more problematic when they are too inclusive and unwilling to engage nicely with other friends outside their friend group, or purposefully leaving others out,” says Abbie Kelly, a child and family therapist in Chicago.

“The underlying factor with cliques is fear. Oftentimes, kids are driven by fear of losing their friend, fear that someone else will become closer, etc. Unfortunately, insecurity starts to take over and poor decision making follows,” Kelly says.

If a clique is excluding a child, parents first need to validate their child’s feelings surrounding the difficult social situation. “Most kids simply want to be heard and felt understood by the people closest to them,” Kelly says.

Goldman recommends telling an excluded child, “Nothing is wrong with you. There is nothing you did that is keeping you out of this group.”

Parents can then empower a child to deal with the situation.

“Focus on that which they can control so they can make empowered choices moving forward,” Kelly says. “Help them understand the strengths and wonderful qualities they possess so that they do not internalize or over-personalize being left out of the group.”

Dr. Kortney Peagram has developed social skills training based on research and behavioral models. She suggests asking the child his or her definition of friendship and then comparing the situation to that definition to see the difference.

“In addition to helping a child understand the importance of healthy friendship, encourage kids to develop and nurture friendships based on mutual interests, rather than social status,” Peagram says.

If you notice your child is socializing with only 2 or 3 other kids, Goldman recommends a one-on-one outing with a kid who is not usually part of your child’s social circle. Make it one-on-one to avoid social pressure from members of the “in crowd” as your child deepens a new relationship.

Parents need to be aware that they often send messages to their children about cliques without even realizing it. “Always be aware of what you are teaching your children, both in your words and behaviors,” Kelly advises.

“Sometimes parents—moms, especially—inadvertently model cliquiness through their own behaviors. I always joke with parents not to make the PTA ‘Parents to Avoid!’” She suggests parents demonstrate being inclusive by approaching new or isolated parents at a school event, introducing yourself and welcoming them.

On the other hand, parents can also discuss their own experience with cliques with their kids. Parents likely have their own experience with being left out and can share with their kids how they handled it, both in terms of worked well and what they would do differently if given the chance.