When Good Groups Go Bad

B O S T O N, Nov. 28, 2001 -- Preps, jocks, and goths — when do such teen cliques go from being a positive to a destructive force?

In the wake of charges that a group of New Bedford, Mass., teenagers planned a local high school killing spree that officials said targeted "thugs, preps, and faculty," many may be left wondering about the extent to which an "us versus them" belief system can spark violence in American schools.

Cliques and groups are common to school age children and do not necessarily mean trouble, agree experts. But as past events have demonstrated, it is also critically important to acknowledge when such group identity becomes a threat.

When Cliques Click

"Particularly in American culture, peer crowds are a very common phenomenon and they do serve a purpose," says Mitch Prinstein, assistant professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Yale University.

According to Prinstein, these groups can help adolescents navigate through social networks and categorize peers, especially during times when many students move into larger schools such as in middle school and high school.

"These groups are also sort of a shortcut for adolescents to develop friendships and romantic relationships," says Prinstein.

Overall, groups play an important role in identity formation. "That children identify themselves with a group is part of deciding who they are and having a feeling of belonging," adds Linda Madison, a child psychologist and director of family support and psychological services at Children's Hospital in Omaha, Neb.

Dangers of Group Identity

Experts also acknowledge that there is a dark side to cliques as well.

"The downside is that there are some groups that are valued more highly than others," says Jay Bass, a counselor and violence prevention consultant based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, "those who cannot latch into groups are somewhat disenfranchised."

In other words, those who do not fit into a specific group may feel neglected or hostile towards those who do and have a higher profile as a result. These individuals may then establish a group identity that is purposely set apart from what they see as being widely accepted.

"Research shows that when children's identity with other children focuses around emotional support rather than activity or positive purpose, they tend to be more destructive," explains Madison. "When they are in a group that defines themselves so rigidly that it excludes other groups, then there is more competition with other groups."

"As the group goes down the road to more destructive behaviors, it may be difficult for the kids not to go along with them," she adds.

Social groups can begin to demonstrate their hostile feelings in a wide variety of negative and harmful behaviors. Teenagers may act out emotionally by teasing, harassing or verbally attacking schoolmates, or physically by pushing or hitting. The most extreme, and experts say very rare, form of acting out is the use of guns or other weapons.

Preventing Destructive Consequences

What steps can parents and educators take in making sure that healthy group behavior does not become destructive or victimize those who do not fit in?

"Modeling is number one," says Madison. "It's really important [for adults] to model appropriate inclusive type behaviors."

For example, if children repeatedly witness behaviors in adults that appear to place importance on certain racial, ethnic, or social groups and exclude those who do not belong, they will likely emulate these behaviors.

Parents should also give their children lots of venues for social involvement, maintain interest in their lives and foster involvement in extracurricular activities, say experts. This will ensure that there are many different settings in which a child can find friends and social support.

And most of all, an important part of keeping group dynamics from taking a tragic toll on children is for adults to try to instill a sense of belonging that is not limited to a social group. "Connectedness with parents and identification with school are two of the most protective factors for kids," says Madison.