Teens and Popularity

I’ve the privilege of working with teenagers every day. Being a teenager is bloody hard. I’m pretty happy that I survived (just about) my own teenage years.

One of the things that hasn’t changed, and probably won’t ever change, since I was a teenager is an overwhelming need and desire to be liked, accepted and to fit in. What I’m finding is that for some young people their expectations of how much they should be or need to be liked is way out of sync with what is realistic.

Statistics was never my strong point in college but what I did manage to retain was the normal curve distribution, sometimes called the bell curve. This is a distribution that occurs naturally in many situations, for example in tests results. The bulk of students will score the average while smaller numbers of students will score a B or D. An even smaller percentage of students score an F or an A. This creates a distribution that resembles a bell.

Many of the young people that I work with, to put it mildly, don’t have a very positive view of themselves. When they judge themselves this negatively they assume that the vast majority of other people see them like this too.

In this scenario they project their own internal self-doubt onto all of their peers around them and assume that 98% of those around them dislike them as much as they dislike themselves. If there is 2% that might actually like them they often justify this by thinking that “they feel sorry for me, they put up with me because they have to”

What teens hope and think they would love to happen in an alternative reality looks something like this:

They set the bar for being liked / popular so unbelievably high that they have set themselves up for a fall from the very beginning. To feel accepted and socially validated they expect that they need to be all things to all people and if they’re not then they’re not good enough. It’s textbook black & white thinking, either I’m liked and accepted by everyone or I’m a social failure.

The reality looks more like this:

This is something I try to get across to the young people I work with that for most of us, how people view us is probably more likely to look like this curve above and this is good enough. Most people think we’re grand, neither particularly good nor bad, just grand. As we move over to the right of the curve and people’s views of us become more and more positive the numbers of people who think that generally will be less. Do we really need 98 very best friends? For most people 2-3 close trusting friendships is good enough.

I don’t try and waffle with a young person and tell them that everyone they meet will like them or no-one will have negative judgments about them. They know it’s true that people won’t like them but the problem is that their own negative views of themselves magnifies their beliefs about how many people have negative views of them. Statistically it’s highly unlikely that large amounts of people will think that we’re a @#$%& (insert your own expletive there) or a dose.

As professionals, adults, parents talking to young people about friendships, fitting in and popularity we need to be balanced and realistic in what we say. We don’t have to have 100’s of friends to be happy and if a couple of people really don’t like us it’s not the end of the world. If we can guide young people towards a sense of what is good enough then maybe we can start to relieve some of the pressure that young people put themselves under.

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