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Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to suggest you start nasty rumors about your kid so his friends won’t like him so much. Being popular and having a lot of friends is a good thing.

But if your child isn’t one of the in crowd you might just thank your lucky stars. Being popular comes with risks.

In a recent study, researchers found that teens who were the most popular at age 13 were mired in problems 10 years later. The scientists followed 180 children from public schools in the Southeastern United States for a decade until age 22 or 23, along the way interviewing them, their parents, and their friends.  After 10 years, kids who were part of the popular gang in early adolescence had a 45 percent higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse than less-popular teens, leading to missed work and DUI arrests among the popular kids. They were also more likely to have been arrested for a crime.

Lead researcher Joseph Allen reports that although in middle school and high school the most popular kids seemed to be on a social fast-track, doing more dating, going more places, and having more fun than other teens, at age 22 these same people’s friends described them as less mature than other 20-year-olds.

What does this mean for your child?

If she’s not part of the most popular group, don’t make it your mission to put her there. Popularity is a two-edged sword and doesn’t necessarily lead to a life of social success. Make raising your child to be an interesting, friendly, engaged person the goal and downplay popularity and status.

If your child is one of the popular ones, keep an eye on things. Remember that research studies necessarily deal in generalities and it’s doubtful that all the popular kids in this study became social outcasts after high school. Your popular child’s path may be different from the general findings of research. But certainly kids who maintain their popularity into their 20s have more going for them than just being cool. They are interesting, friendly, and engaged people.

People like them, not because they’re popular, but because they’re nice.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.