It’s perfectly normal: Preteens and teens group together and often hang on tight. As they push for increasing independence from their parents, they turn to their peers for guidance, acceptance, and security. Safety, for those whose self-esteem and self-confidence is still shaky, lies in fitting in and having a place to belong. Most kids find a group with whom they “click” in a healthy way. Others get swept up in a “clique” that does give them some security but at the price of their individuality and maybe even their values.

Clicks

Friend groups made up of kids who “click” are usually healthy. Kids who find each other through a common interest and positive shared values can offer each other a “home base” during the teen years. Healthy friend groups don’t need everyone to be exactly the same. People in healthy friend groups are there for each other, go to each other’s special events, support each other through hard times, and let people be individuals.

Ariel has been part of the same friend group since third grade when she and four others were assigned a special project. They immediately clicked. Hanging out at school expanded into hanging out after school and on weekends. Ariel and one of the other girls joined a local theater group. Two others are on the field hockey team. Three of the girls spend lots of time at the dance studio. They like the friends they meet at their other activities too. But in the school halls, they like to touch base with each other. “The best part of my group,” says Ari, “is that I don’t have to feel like I’m being disloyal if I want to spend time with my theater buddies or if I want to bring someone along if we’re meeting up after school. But the friends in my group are the people who know me best. They’re the people I look for when I’m having a crisis.”

Shari agrees. “If we were all doing the same thing all the time, we wouldn’t have as much to talk about.” This group is open to new experiences and new people. They don’t need to cling together to feel okay but they are really glad that they have a place where they can be totally themselves.

Cliques

Cliques aren’t necessarily made up of people who click. These groups aren’t brought together by a genuine interest in each other. Instead, they are organized around power and popularity. Leaders of such groups often are charismatic and controlling. Members of the group rely on exclusivity and very strict internal codes to establish and maintain the idea that they are something special. They do everything together and have no tolerance for any member branching out to friends outside the group.

The secret that these groups don’t want anyone else to discover is that most of the members are terribly insecure. Lacking the self-esteem and confidence to be their own person, each instead relies on the membership in an exclusive club for her or his identity.

The problem with this strategy is that the group can easily take that identity away. It’s not unusual for a clique to turn on a member for some real or imagined challenge to either the values or the leadership of the group. No one wants to be that girl or that guy who is evicted from the group. Conformity to the whims of the leaders is the price paid for membership.

Sam is a girl who is used to being one of the popular kids. For the past two years, she’s hung out with the most popular girls in school. Everyone knows who they are. They all have the same “look,” a kind of studied casualness: name-brand jeans, sleek tops, cropped jackets. They sit together in the lunchroom and hang out together in the halls. They’re known for making critical comments about other people’s dress, hair styles, or even their jobs. (Working retail is cool; waitressing definitely is not.) This is the stuff that makes for mean girls or mean guys. By picking on or bullying others who look different, who like different things, or have different values, the clique maintains their exclusivity and the illusion of their superiority.

Life changed for Sam when she fell for a guy the group decided wasn’t “cool.” Paired up in biology lab, the two found that they liked the same music and had the same cynical humor. It was like at first sight. “The last couple of months has been wonderful and awful,” says Sam. “The relationship with my boyfriend is something special. But the group isn’t even interested in knowing what he’s like. He’s really, really sweet and they just rode him and me. I finally had enough but it’s been hell. I thought those girls were my friends but I just have to get away from them now. I’m a senior and and everyone’s got their friends. If it weren’t for my boyfriend, I’d have nobody.”