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Section 12
Advice for Teen Clients: Fitting In versus Blending In

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents

How far would you go to fit in with the group? Spending time with friends ranks high on everyone's "to do" list. How comfortable are you with other groups of teens? And how can you fit in without losing yourself?

What's Great About Groups?
First of all, friends share good times. They like you for who you are.  Groups your own age, or peer groups, become very important during your teen years. As teens face physical, emotional, and social changes, peer groups provide emotional support. Teens care about their friends. Plus, teens understand what other teens are going through. Even in "stable" families, for example, teens often experience conflict with their parents as they grow more independent. So teens naturally rely more on their friends. Good friends are emotional anchors when the going gets rough.

Belonging to a group also helps define one's identity. "We are social beings, and we do not function in isolation," explains Steven G. Little, a psychologist at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. "Virtually everything we do involves some sort of social system." Basically, a teen's group reflects his or her personal choices. "We in essence define ourselves by who we are in relationship to others," says Little. "So, by knowing your friends and being able to associate and get along with them, you are establishing your own social identity as a member of that group." Groups also help develop social competence. That's the ability to understand and get along with others. Social competence will be essential for building successful family relationships, advancing in a career, and dealing with other challenges of adulthood.  Healthy peer relationships help protect you too. Tonya Aultman-Bettridge at the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence reports, "Generally, teens who have high bonds with their friends and who are involved in a lot of positive activities are less likely to be engaged in violence." Teens in these groups are less likely to engage in risky behaviors linked to violence. They also informally protect each other from aggressive confrontations.

Why Cliques May Not Click
Technically, a clique is just a type of group. "A clique is any group that's bound together by common interests that has some sort of standards for being considered a member of the clique," says Little. School cliques can include competing "in crowds": jocks, cheerleaders, skaters, brains, nerds, drama people, goths, and so on.  There's nothing wrong with teens joining together to share similar interests. Sometimes, though, cliques bully and mock outsiders. They mistakenly think this increases their own social status.

"A lot of problems arise when people form groups that exclude others," comments Aultman-Bettridge. "Some athletic teams seem to be more like a gang than like a positive peer group if they exclude people because they're not 'in' with them." Likewise, catty remarks from "chick cliques" can get downright nasty. With these cliques, only certain teens become part of the chosen few.  Many taunted teens feel tortured by loneliness. As self-esteem suffers, depression can follow. In very extreme cases, some teen victims of clique cruelty commit suicide. Other angry, isolated students may lash out with violence like that in recent school shootings.  Even teens who belong to cliques feel pressure. Clique members often have defined roles, where some act as trendsetters and others as followers. If they step outside the given role, they can be ostracized, or excluded.   Clique members may feel pressured to conform in other ways too. They may dress a certain way to avoid the "fashion police." They may forego friendships they might otherwise pursue. They may allow or even join in the bullying of outsiders.  How can you tell if your group is a negative clique? Take a realistic look at how group members treat outsiders. Are they welcoming and accepting of others? Or do they say or do things to let others know they're not wanted?   Also decide if you are really comfortable in the group. No one should have to do a complete personality makeover to fit in with any group. "Just try to act normal," says 15-year-old Chris Safrath of Long Island, New York. "If you have to change the way you act around people in order for them to like you, then they really aren't your friends."

Risky Business
Peer groups can have other downsides. Studies show that peer pressure plays a role in how early some teens become sexually active. They perceive that such activity somehow increases their status among their peers.  Teens are also more likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs if their friends do. The same goes with shoplifting and committing other crimes. While these teens know the behavior is wrong, they may also go along with the group to avoid being considered "wimps."   "When individuals and groups start engaging in behaviors that either you deem unacceptable or society has deemed unacceptable, that's where it gets very difficult for a teenager," says Little. Peer pressure may force you to choose between sticking with the group and upholding your personal standards and values.  "I think you really have to know who you are and what you believe in," says 19-year-old Nasreen Ghazi of North Olmsted, Ohio. "If they really are your friends, then they won't pressure you to do something you're not comfortable with."

"If your friends try to get you to do something you don't want to do, then they're not your friends," agrees Chris. "You should find new ones." Admitting that to yourself can hurt. But doing something you know is wrong can hurt even worse in the long run.

The Gift of Friendship
What are you wearing right now? On the one hand, clothing choices express individuality. On the other hand, you probably dress much like other teens in your group of friends. If you dressed too differently, you'd definitely stick out. Conformity, or sameness, in fashion choices is one way teens fit in with each other.  But fitting in isn't just about how you dress. It's learning to feel accepted as part of a group. It's going along sometimes with what the group wants, while feeling comfortable that you're still yourself. It's trusting other group members with the gift of your friendship.  Of course, that isn't always easy. Even popular teens admit they sometimes feel unsure of themselves. What can you do?  Start by being your own best friend. Exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep each day. Do things you enjoy. Share your talents with others. View things with a positive outlook. The more you like yourself, the more confident you'll feel in a group. At the same time, developing interests and talents will help you become more likeable.
Be a friend to others. An old saying holds that the best way to make a friend is to be one. So, start by smiling and saying "Hi" more often.  Rather than trying to take on a whole group at once, start with one-on-one friendships. Show interest in what someone is doing. Talk about class or club activities. Offer support if it's needed. Ask someone to do something with you.  If this sounds like work, it is. But groups of friends won't automatically beat a pathway to your door. Everyone has to put something into building a relationship.  Not everyone you talk with will want to be your best buddy, either. Nor would you want to limit yourself to just one friend. That could get socially suffocating for both of you. Instead, explore friendships with a variety of people. The more you reach out, the wider your circle of friends will be.  Just be yourself. But don't force it. Trying too hard to fit in can backfire. "You can't just force your way into a group," notes Little. "Just find people who have similar interests that you like, and associate with them."  Don't feel limited to the school social structure either. Clubs, sports, volunteer organizations, and church groups all offer opportunities to meet people who share your interests. "Just be yourself, and if one group doesn't accept you, find another one," suggests 16-year-old Maggie Kiel of Cleveland, Ohio. "There's a group for everybody. You just have to look."

Fitting In vs. Blending In
How can you fit in when you're different from teens around you? Accept the challenge to move beyond obvious differences. Chances are you'll find common ground.  "I definitely stood out in high school, because I am Muslim and Indian," notes Nasreen. "However, I didn't have any trouble fitting in because I was lucky enough to find a great group of friends who like me for me, and who don't care about religion, race, or anything like that." Similar values and interests outweigh physical or cultural differences any day. "School important to my friends and we all get good grades, and we're all very religious (even though we're not all the same religion)," notes Nasreen. "We also care about each other a lot."  Fitting in is important. But your individuality is important too. Take pride in your interests, talents, cultural background, and other factors that help make you who you are.  Remember that fitting in doesn't mean anyone has to blend into the background, Respect the differences among teens in your group. Appreciate how unique each person is.

Celebrate the Differences
Of course, friends in a group aren't cookie-cutter people. They're all individuals, "I belong to a large group that gets along well," says 18-year-old Bernadette Safrath from Long Island, New York. "We all have different interests, but everyone shares at least one interest with one other per, son." Those different interests can provide opportunities to try new things and broaden your horizons.  Even in friendly groups, some people may just not be your favorite friends. "Most groups are going to have positives and negatives," notes Little. "If the group overall has more positives to you, then you're more willing to deal with someone."  So, how do you deal with someone who is part of your group but who you don't get along with very well? "If there are people in your group who you aren't as close with as others, keep it to yourself," recommends Bernadette. "You don't have to be that person's best friend. The person can be just a casual acquaintance who you see when you're with your close friends."  "Try to understand why that person is like that, and maybe you will like him [or her] more," suggests Chris. "Just be nice and try not to let the person bother you."

Being part of a peer group doesn't mean you'll always want to do everything that group does, either. If an issue comes up that affects your religious or cultural beliefs, let your friends know. "My [religious] belief is that I cannot intermingle with guys at places like dances and such," notes Nasreen. "So, every single dance or every single time my friends went out with their boyfriends was a challenge. It took me a long time to adjust to my friends doing these things without me, but we talked it over and handled it by doing a whole lot of 'girls night out' things," says Nasreen. "They understood my beliefs and were willing to help me feel included."  Other issues may deal more with personal likes and dislikes. "I hate shopping and malls and trendy stores with the disco music," says Maggie, "and some of my friends like to shop there." Maggie sometimes goes along, though.  It's fortunate if your group spends more time doing activities everyone agrees on. If most areas of common interest have faded away, though, it may be time to find another group. But don't just drop out without saying anything. "Be honest. If you feel it's time to move on, tell the group how you feel and why," says Bernadette. "You may be able to work it out." Even if you can't, at least you'll avoid hard feelings.

- Kowalski, Kathiann, What's Your Group ID? Current Health 1, Nov2001, Vol. 25, Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information regarding advising teen clients about the differences between "fitting in" and "blending in".  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
Reviewed 2023

Bidirectional Associations of Prosocial Behavior
with Peer Acceptance and Rejection in Adolescence

- Chávez, D. V., Salmivalli, C., Garandeau, C. F., Berger, C., & Kanacri, B. P. L. (2022). Bidirectional Associations of Prosocial Behavior with Peer Acceptance and Rejection in Adolescence. Journal of youth and adolescence, 51(12), 2355–2367.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Crowley, B. Z., Datta, P., Stohlman, S., Cornell, D., & Konold, T. (2019). Authoritative school climate and sexual harassment: A cross-sectional multilevel analysis of student self-reports. School Psychology, 34(5), 469–478.

Crowley, B. Z., & Cornell, D. (2020). Associations of bullying and sexual harassment with student well-being indicators. Psychology of Violence, 10(6), 615–625.

Weinstein, M., Jensen, M. R., & Tynes, B. M. (2021). Victimized in many ways: Online and offline bullying/harassment and perceived racial discrimination in diverse racial–ethnic minority adolescents. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 27(3), 397–407.

What advice might you give a teen client regarding determining if their friendship group is a "negative clique"? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 13
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