When we think of cliques in high schools, most of us immediately think of Mean Girls, but a recent study has found boys are actually more cliquey than girls.
Boys are more likely than girls to form "tight-knit bands" of friends, and stick to that group throughout the school year, found The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in partnership with the University of Cambridge. The research was actually set up to study communicable diseases among 460 Year Seven students, and how they spread, but the findings about social groups became obvious to researchers as they watched boys and girls over the course of a five-month period.
Lead author of the study Dr Adam Kucharski said, "Showing boys are potentially more cliquey than girls, perhaps going against gender stereotypes, and that popular children remain popular over time, is an interesting social insight."
Brisbane mum of two teenage boys Heather* says the findings don't surprise her.
"One of my sons is sporty and academic, and he's never had a single worry about making friends," she says. "It's like, if you turn up to school and can kick a ball, you'll never have to worry about anything."
Heather's second son doesn't care for sport and is an average student.
"He has struggled much more with friends," she says. "He has one or two mates that he knocks around with, but he's never been accepted by the wider circle like my older son has. It's tough to see him struggle like that."
Jane, a Geelong mother with a boy and a girl both in high school, says her son struggles more than her daughter.
"There seems to be more to lose in the social hierarchy with the boys at school," she says. "Neither of my kids is in the super popular group, but my daughter has a small group of lovely friends and she's happy with that.
"My son, on the other hand, feels constantly left out, and he's often harassed or picked on by the more popular boys because he's not in the top cricket or football team and isn't interested in talking about girls."
Sociologist, and Associate Professor at Monash University, Steven Roberts says the cliques that form in high schools are often status groups, which is how teens learn to jostle for status in a social hierarchy.
"Some gender peer groups, whether cast as cliques or otherwise, are an outcome of cultural and social influences, and the strong investment that the vast majority of people and institutions have in the gender binary," he says.
"The bottom line is that cliques can and do act to include some and exclude others. And it's a painful experience for a teen to be in search of their social validation – the same as those who are in a clique – and find themselves left out."
Associate Professor Roberts says boys can gain status, esteem and a sense of belonging from forming cliques, but that it can come at a cost.
"Boys in cliques might bond, as traditionally has been the case, through banter about women, sex and so on," he says. "These can act as mechanisms to enhance bonding but of course can bring a multitude of problems. So, on the one hand, boys might form a clique for personal and social validation but it can be at the expense of others who might be alienated or, in the case of young women, objectified or even slut-shamed."
Associate Professor Roberts says if your son is feeling left out of cliques at school, it can be a difficult challenge to help with as a parent.
"My personal view is that parents are not responsible for solving this dilemma, but of course they'd be interested in preventing or lessening their child's social isolation," he says.
Associate Professor Roberts suggests parents focus on validating and praising their children to help establish a strong sense of self, although he also says parental praise alone probably won't ease the child's burden. He says validating children's interests and building their self-confidence should be something parents are doing well in advance of their teen years.
"And while we're at it," he says, "teaching our children to be inclusive of others, to be the one who brings people in from the outside to the inside of a group would seem like a worthy endeavour.
"Nonetheless, and this is important, there are structural realities that parents cannot overcome through teaching their kids this or that. As carriers of shared norms and conventions, boys bring to schools what we see reflected in society: competition, status hierarchies, winners, losers, in groups, out groups, divisions and difference.
"Let's not blame it all on the kids."
The most straightforward way to encourage boys to include others and resist the cliques, according to Associate Professor Roberts, is to teach them directly the importance of inclusion.
"But actually, I think validating the ways that children behave when they're younger, not buying into and reproducing gender divide rhetoric, might be a good start," he says. "Emphasising difference as being normal and acceptable over and above hierarchies of difference is also a good thing."