Raising Healthy High Schoolers: How Do High School Stereotypes Hurt Teens?
Think back to one of your high school classrooms, your cafeteria, or another communal space where you used to spend hours of your teenage years. While you may have fond memories from this time, you might also associate your high school experience with life-changing challenges and social pressures.
Today, many teens contend with the pressure of high school stereotypes on top of their schoolwork, social media, relationships, and puberty-related changes.
Stereotypes are cognitive generalizations made about the qualities and characteristics of the members of a particular group. While stereotypes help us make quick judgments and perceptions, they tend to be exaggerated and negative, which can prevent us from getting to know others in a more understanding, empathetic light.
If you’re the parent or caregiver of a teen, learning about the potential harm of high school stereotypes can help you guide your adolescent through this tricky phase of life. With research-backed information and strategies, parents can raise healthy teens and help them grow into confident, self-aware adults.
What Are The Harmful Effects Of High School Stereotypes?
While stereotypes do not always hurt teens, these generalizations may encourage bias, exclusion, misinformation, and other social behaviors with harmful psychological effects.
Based on current psychological research, stereotypes can lead to the following harmful outcomes in high school-aged students.
1. Stereotype Threat
Stereotype threat refers to a person’s expectation that negative stereotypes about their member group will adversely influence others’ judgments of their performance. Within this line of reasoning, a person believes their poor performance will reflect badly on their group.
Research suggests that stereotype threat commonly occurs in classrooms, where negative stereotypes about a particular race, ethnicity, gender, and/or cultural group can create stress and ultimately reduce a student’s academic focus and performance.
For example, several studies show that racist stereotypes about African American students’ intellectual ability can negatively affect their test-taking performance. Stereotype threat is common among any member of a marginalized group, whether the group is defined by race, gender, or another core identity.
2. Limited Exploration Of Passions.
Negative stereotypes about high schoolers’ gender, race, and other identifying features may discourage them from fully exploring their passions and budding interests.
For instance: the widespread belief that girls are better at language than boys, and that boys are better in math, may lead high schoolers to avoid certain clubs or hobbies in accordance with these stereotypes. Relatedly, if a high schooler belongs to a certain group that rejects specific interests or skillsets, they may stifle their natural interests in exchange for social currency.
The implications of these behaviors extend beyond high school, and may even shape students’ career choices and confidence in their future endeavors.
3. The Formation Of Harmful Cliques
High school stereotypes are often linked to specific “cliques”, which are status- or friendship-based subgroups within a larger group: in this case, high school. Depending on your age and where you attended school, you may have encountered some of the following high school cliques:
- Jocks, athletes, and cheerleaders
- Theater kids
- Popular kids
- “Nerds” or academics
- Artsy kids
- Band or choir kids
As teens navigate the social challenges of high school, belonging to a clique can enhance their social standing and friendship ties, while reducing feelings of isolation and exclusion. Relatedly, stereotypes about certain cliques can provide helpful information about the characteristics of people who belong to those groups.
But if you’ve ever been excluded from a clique, you likely understand the potential harm of cliques – and their associated stereotypes – from firsthand experience. Some of the negatives of cliques include:
- Cruelty to people outside the clique
- Forced conformity to specific rules or ways of acting
- A sense of social instability: one day, other clique members may decide they do not want another member in the clique anymore
Collectively, the unspoken dynamics of cliques can make it difficult to make new friends, explore alternative interests, or exit a potentially harmful social group.
Trying To Help Your Teen Combat Negative Stereotypes?
Strategies For Parents: How To Help Your Teen Combat Negative Stereotypes
If you’re a parent or caregiver, perhaps you’ve already had several conversations with your teen about the negative effects of stereotypes. On the other hand, your teen might hesitate to talk about their social challenges with you, or simply not have the language to describe how negative stereotypes make them feel.
Wherever you are in this process, there are several strategies for parents to support their teens’ social growth and help them combat negative high school stereotypes.
1. Challenge Common Stereotypes About Teens
In addition to the group-based stereotypes that often circulate in high schools, parents and other adults can actually perpetuate negative stereotypes about teens. In both popular media and everyday conversations, many people stereotype teens as risky and irresponsible, and therefore likely to ignore their parents, skip school, and succumb to bad influences.
However, researchers are finding that these stereotypes do not universally define teens. In fact, challenging these harmful conceptions can actually encourage teenagers to accept more responsibility and achieve greater things.
In a 2018 study published in the Child Development journal, researchers asked a group of Chinese middle schoolers to describe specific examples of teens behaving responsibly and then tracked how they thought about teens and conducted themselves after the exercise, compared to students who only described teen behavior.
The students who focused on responsible teenage behavior were less likely to support negative stereotypes about teens, like poor school attendance or risk-taking. In the short term, they were also more likely to engage in more constructive behaviors themselves.
These results suggest that negative stereotypes about teens – some of which stem from adults and parents – can influence teens’ behavior and belief in themselves; but crucially, these stereotypes are not fixed.
As a parent, you can discuss the inaccuracy of these stereotypes with your teen and encourage a growth mindset: the belief that we can improve our abilities – and combat misconceptions about ourselves – with effort, patience, and support from others.
2. Encourage Exploration
From day one, kids are inclined to explore their worlds. While teens may not view themselves as “explorers”, high school is still a time of immense exploration and possibility.
From an early age, parents can encourage children to play with all kinds of toys and games, regardless of the associated gender stereotypes. Over time, this simple decision can expand a child’s skillset and may make them more resilient to the harmful effects of high school stereotypes.
Even in high school, play and exploration continue. Both parents and teachers can offer a range of activities that span various areas of interest, without specifying that they’re for boys, girls, or any other specific group.
3. Recognize That Stereotypes Change Over Time
If you’re a parent, the stereotypes and cliques you encountered as a high schooler may differ substantially from the ones your teen now faces. Recent research supports this sentiment: based on a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, there are new themes unique to modern-day teen experiences and high school cliques. Key takeaways include:
- Academic anxiety is increasing.
- While high schools are diversifying, racial and ethnic stereotypes still exist.
- The emergence of newer cliques, including an “anime/ magna” crowd and a fear of “loners” as potential perpetrators of violence, may stem from current events and social media.
In summary: although many high school stereotypes remain powerful over time, they’re also not stagnant. Your teen’s social world differs from your own – and, even more importantly, the world you occupied as a teen.
With this basic understanding in mind, listen to your teen describe their social experiences before offering your perspective. When parents don’t take the time to understand their teens’ social worlds, their advice may reflect their own teenage experiences rather than their children’s current needs.
4. Consult A Therapist For More Support.
For many people, parenting is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of their lives. If you’re looking for additional support for yourself or your teen, a professional therapist can offer parenting strategies and empathy to help you all navigate the high school years and beyond.
While some people prefer in-person therapy, many parents and busy professionals prefer the ease and convenience of online therapy. Using a digital platform like BetterHelp, you can complete a brief questionnaire and match with a board-certified therapist within 48 hours. All BetterHelp therapists have at least three years of professional experience, and some specialize in working with parents, caregivers, and other people with high schoolers in their lives.
Several studies show that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. While more research is needed to assess the benefit of online therapy for parents, one 2020 study found that the pilot of an online cognitive behavioral group therapy (iCBT-I) for insomnia was well-received by both parents and school children. Most parents scored the treatment as helpful for their children’s sleep problems, and the researchers noted that the iCBT-I could be expanded and applied to a larger sample of children. Other studies affirm the efficacy of iCBT, which has been used to treat a range of mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.
The high school years can be transformative, enlightening, and turbulent. With the support of a parent or other caring adults, high schoolers can develop the tools and awareness they need to combat harmful stereotypes – and, perhaps most importantly, learn to accept themselves and others.
Whether you’re a teen, parent, or simply someone with a high schooler in their life, learning about common stereotypes can help you better understand the teens in your life. As you navigate this process, a licensed therapist can offer additional tools to enhance your understanding and improve your relationship with your teen.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What makes a kid popular in high school?
Popular kids tend to have a lot of charisma, social skills, and confidence that help them rise up the social ladder. For a girl to become popular, it helps if she is very pretty and has a social personality. For a boy, it helps if he is athletic like the jocks.
However, there are many other factors that may help someone become popular. Many kids who come from wealthy families tend to be more popular than those who don’t. Kids in this group may also have family members who have connections with teachers or other important figures in the school, which increases the popularity of these members.
What are the 12 high school cliques?
Recent research has found that there are about twelve high school cliques found in most high schools. They are the populars, jocks, floaters, good-ats, fine arts, brains, normals, druggie/stoners, emo/goths, anima/manga, loners, and racial/ethnic groups.
You are probably familiar with most of these cliques due to the common stereotypes found in movies, television, and other media. The populars are the kids at the top of the social ladder whom everyone looks up to. They are usually rich, wear the latest trends, and are mean to others. The popular girl is the more common stereotype, as immortalized by the character Regina George in the movie Mean Girls. A girl in the popular group will have long hair, wear lots of makeup, and is usually swarmed by a group of admiring boys. Furthermore, all girls in the school look up to her and want to be like her, despite the fact that she is incredibly mean to them.
The jocks are the guys who are really into sports and tend to be bullies. They may also be populars or are friends with the populars or may be in their own specific group with other athletes. All the girls in school usually swoon over these guys, even though they may be rude to anyone not in their clique.
The good-ats are the overachievers in class. They get significantly better grades than the rest of the class and tend to be the teacher’s pet. However, they are not the same as nerds. They may also partake in volunteer opportunities or extracurriculars and are well-rounded. They tend not to create a clique themselves but interact and become friends with various other cliques instead.
The fine arts clique consists of kids who are very interested in art. They may get involved in drawing, painting, sculpting, or similar hobbies. They also may have more piercings, tattoos, or other body modifications than some of the other cliques. Their grades tend to vary. Some do well in most subjects, while others only excel in an artistic course.
The brains are the nerds of the class. They consistently excel in their coursework and have very good grades. However, they tend to experience more anxiety than other high school cliques, especially social anxiety. They may be under more pressure than average from their parents to succeed.
The next three cliques are on the lower end of the social ladder. First, there are the druggies, which as you may have guessed, focus their identity on their drug use. They’re the kids that smoke weed or do other drugs after school has ended and revolve their personality mostly on this. They tend to be laid back and more relaxed than their classmates. They may be higher up on the social ladder depending on overall views of drugs by their other classmates.
Next is the emo and goth clique. They’re the kids who wear all black, have spiked hair, and wear leather jackets. They may listen to music that isn’t mainstream such as punk rock, alternative, rock, or indie rock.
The third group on the lower end of the social ladder is the anime/manga clique. Members of this group enjoy anime and manga, which usually isn’t a popular hobby amongst other cliques. Members may partake in cosplay and dress as their favorite character or may just enjoy the hobby by reading manga and watching anime on television.
Next is there are the loners. They don’t fit into any group, but that may be by choice. They are content without having too many friends and just like to be by themselves.
Now, we need to discuss the floaters and the normals. They are typically smacked in the middle of the social ladder and neither group fits neatly into a specific clique. Floaters drift from clique to clique, often making friends with members of various groups but don’t actually join any of them. Normals don’t exactly float, but they don’t directly belong to any clique either. Instead, they feel invisible and that they don’t particularly fit into a specific group. This doesn’t mean that they have friends; they just don’t belong to a specific group.
Research indicates that the final clique is the racial/ethnic groups. Members of this clique support each other as they traverse the unique challenges that may only be experienced by their ethnicity. However, it must be noted that with increased diversity and inclusivity, this clique may not be as common as it once was. Furthermore, schools that have these cliques usually find them to be more fluid than some of the others.
However, though these cliques are common, it is important to understand that people don’t always fall neatly into predetermined groups. People are often more complex and unique and don’t always fit into specific groups.
Furthermore, this classification doesn’t include all members that you may actually see in a high school. For example, band geeks and members don’t show up in the twelve high school cliques but is still a common clique that you will see in high school. This group involves members who are interested in music, whether it includes playing an instrument for the school band or singing in the choir.
Another example is the class clown. This stereotype may interrupt class with his shenanigans and often gets in trouble with the teacher. Though the class clown is not in a specified clique, he may be a part of the popular kids, jocks, or normals. However, he can also be a floater as he typically is a fun friend for anyone. Since he is the life of the party, he typically is at the middle or upper end of the social ladder.
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