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Ashley Smith entered her second year of middle school with high hopes. She had a year of middle school under her belt and she had friends.
Or so she thought. "Suddenly, my closest friends turned on me," Ashley, who's now a high school sophomore in Portland, Oregon, told Choices. "It started out as constant teasing. Then they didn't want to have anything to do with me."
Ariela Angert, 16, of Oceanside, New York, began middle school with a friend she had been close with since elementary school. "We started to drift apart in middle school," says Ariela. "By the time we started high school, we barely acknowledged one another. It's sad, but we just got drawn to different things and made different friends."
As Ashley's and Ariela's experiences show, friendships become more complicated during the teenage years. Why? It's a time where a young person wants to try new things and figure out who he or she is.
Meanwhile, that person's friends are developing their own separate interests while also grappling with their own identity issues. For instance, you trade in your cleats for a computer, but your buddies are still obsessed with playing soccer. Or, you decide to join an after-school club while your closest pal takes on a part-time job.
The hard part for teens is that, like Ashley, they may find themselves fitting in one day and being pushed aside the next. Or, even if you're willing to let a friendship go as Ariela was, watching it wither away isn't easy. Either way, teens often find themselves asking where and how they fit in with others.
Those are tough questions, but the tips on page 20 may help you find an answer to them.
1 Beware of Cliques. As with most teens, Martina Rodriguez 15, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, knows how important it is to feel part of a group. "It's more than just wanting to get invited to parties," she says. "You want to have friends you can sit with in the cafeteria and do things with after school. You want friends to relate to and confide in." This desire to belong often leads teens to join cliques, groups of kids who share a common interest. Examples of common interests include a style of dress, a music taste, an after-school club, or a sports team. Cliques can help kids meet people who share their interests.
But cliques have downsides, too. Many of them exclude those who aren't part of the group. And the pressure on kids in the clique to conform to the group is intense. "If you act out of sync with your group, you're going to be criticized. The fitting-in dance is often excruciating," report Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese in their book Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle (Broadway Books, 2001). Alex Cancro, 12, of Taos, New Mexico, fell victim to a clique. "The popular clique in my school made me feel good about myself because the kids are older than me and they welcomed me into their group," he says. "But I had to try so hard to be somebody I'm not. Soon, I made the mistake of dissing a guy I liked and my real friends, because the clique did not approve of them."
2 Acknowledge Your Stress. Many teens who are preoccupied with fitting in and finding friends experience stress and anxiety. They can get headaches, stomachaches, sweaty hands, and tense muscles. They often don't eat or sleep well. "When my friends would make fun of something I said or did, it was really hard for me to eat or fall asleep," Ashley says. Such painful physical reactions to stress are signs that it's time to stand up for yourself and maybe even find new friends. Forming your own opinions, speaking your mind, and standing up for what you believe are important parts of growing up. "You don't have to be part of a clique to be cool," says Ariel. "The cooler you think someone is, the more power you give them. Don't get yourself down if they don't let you in. Just make your own little trend, and then you are the trend leader."
3 Follow Your Interests. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to fit in with your peers, concentrate on getting involved in activities you enjoy. Like shooting baskets? Join your school's hoop team. Have artistic talent? Take a painting class. Enjoy little kids? Volunteer at a day-care center. You'll meet other teens who share your interest in the specific activity, and that is a great way to start a friendship.
4 Seek Advice. Think your parents or other adults have no idea what you're going through? Think again. They were once teens too and may have experienced what you're going through now. Talk to these adults. They can — and want to — help.
5 Be Creative. Shake up your social life by asking people to do things that aren't routine. (Just make sure these activities are safe — and legal.) answer to them.
Tried & True
Lean On Me: Pick one friend in your life and thick about your relationship with this person. How much do you respect him or her? Do you listen to this person or are happy for them when they do well? Think about the experiences you've had with this friend and create a list of ways you could be a better friend.
Reflection Exercise #2