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Social Life in Middle and High School: Dealing With Cliques and Bullies

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Introduction

As children grow they experience many biological, cognitive, and socio-emotional changes. Along with these developments, come changes in their social interactions with the world in which they live. In the toddler and early elementary years, children's social experiences are determined mostly by family and school contacts. By the end of elementary school, children have begun to form relationships independent of their families.

As their children's social world expands parents have less control over their activities and children make their own social choices. In the middle school preadolescent years, they begin to develop more advanced interpersonal relationships, and peer approval and acceptance become more important. In the high school adolescent years peer relationships become even more critical. As teens form close relationships with others, they struggle to understand who they are and where they fit it; they start to form their own identity in relation to others - a critical component of healthy social development.

Adolescence is a tough and exciting time, with many biological, cognitive, and social/emotional challenges, as well as the potential for many accomplishments. Most teens navigate these years successfully, but for some these transitional years are socially difficult. Social styles differ -- some teens want to join groups, others prefer one or two close friends. Some adolescents prefer to be alone but some are socially neglected - they may not be actively put down or excluded from a central group of kids, rather, they're just ignored and often alone. Teens who are different physically, emotionally, or behaviorally may fall in this category. There are also teens who are socially rejected. These youth often make repeated attempts to be part of a group of students but are rejected because they are antagonistic or unable to behave in a socially appropriate manner, such as teens with untreated ADHD or overly aggressive behavior. Some children and teens become victimized by bullies and often feel isolated and insecure; they are at risk for loss of self-esteem, depression and other long-term effects. The problem is pervasive, and each day at least 160,000 children in the United States miss school due to bullying.

Why do some kids act so mean? Why are some kids victimized? Is it just part of growing up, the ordinary give-and-take among kids? Research shows that bullying can take an emotional, as well as a physical, toll.

Joanna, a 7th grader, likes to wear her favorite cap backwards, a style that was mocked by a group of girls in her class. When Joanna continued to wear her cap backwards two girls grabbed it, ran off, and tossed it into a garbage pail. Joanna has begun to find excuses not to go to school.

Eddie, a high school sophomore, wanted to join the track team. Because he's overweight, Eddie was teased by track team members when he tried out; they taunted him by calling him "tub of lard" or "fat blimp." Since then Eddie has complained of vague physical symptoms and has not pursued other sports.

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