Teenage popularity: blessing or curse?

Why affluent adolescents fail to launch

Being athletic, attractive, socially admired and sought after seem like the perfect solutions to overcoming the angst and insecurities common in the early teen years. It might feel as though you’ve dodged a bullet if your child is one of the popular kids, but watch out.

This temporary teenage high is more of a flash fire than a slow burn and many end up in “failing to launch” as adults.

Fast-forward a decade, and the once-popular kids are often struggling with substance abuse and low achievement, looking back on the glory days, with parents providing a helping hand for living expenses.

Popularity as a problem predictor

This might come as a surprise, but popularity is actually a better predictor of future problems than teen substance use itself, according to a study from the University of Virginia and discussed in Jan Hoffman’s New York Times article “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23”:

“Pseudomature behavior is even a stronger predictor of problems with drugs and alcohol than levels of drug use in early adolescence.”

But why? Why, when they seem to be on the road to success, does stable young-adulthood so often elude them? Let’s explore some answers.

Emotionally unprepared

Early stardom, hosting the all-nighter, and attaining “Queen Bee” status carry their own stressors.

“The teenagers who lead the social parade in middle school – determining everyone else’s choices in clothes, social media and even notebook colors – have a heavy burden for which they are not emotionally equipped.”

Once you’ve won the big game, become party central, or bedded that special somebody (probably following an over-the-top prom invitation), it’s hard to maintain the pace without raising the stakes to dangerous levels.

For me, playing left wing on varsity in eighth grade and winning the big game at 15 were incredible highs. So was beating the competition for class rank and making it into an Ivy League college. But that euphoria passes quickly, and it’s easy to turn to alcohol in an attempt to recapture the endorphin rush.

Most young teens lack the perspective and sophistication to handle early peak experiences. It overwhelms them, even as they pretend that everything is under control. It’s not easy feeling insecure on the inside while presenting a bulletproof exterior to fend off the competition at any age, let alone at 16.

Early success and attention can be scary – and there’s no one to talk about it with because most adults think success breeds happiness. Under the guidance of aware adults or a strong internal compass, some maintain self-discipline until their brain develops abstract concepts and they gain a perspective on their experiences, but this is more the exception than the rule.

There’s only one Missy Franklin for every 10 Justin Biebers.

The lifestyle

Being “special” is an especially well-trodden path for children of affluence. Kids who come from families with money – who have the trendiest name-brand clothes, the latest technology, the fastest cars, etc. – often find themselves at the epicenter of their social circles. Their peers want to be around them; they’re put on the A-team in athletics; teachers and administrators buckle under the weight of the family’s prominence. Out here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes – these are the Boat People – kids with lake homes who drive jet skis and migrate to houses with absent parents and accessible alcohol.

Some skate through – never pushed to build real-world, employment-worthy skills. Others are on the track for high-prestige schools and run into trouble post-college.


For the budding athlete, there are varsity induction rituals like hazing and end-of-season celebrations – all of which involve heavy drinking. Prowess on the field and in the gym creates a sense of invincibility and many opportunities for binging. This includes girls, ever eager to show they can outshine the boys.

With winking disapproval from administrators and parents, the relationship with alcohol (and eventually other drugs) becomes ritualized.

Dubious role models

The attractive, the good-looking, and the superficially sophisticated not only look up to older role models as trendsetters but are often partying with high-status students three to four years older. And it’s usually the more exploitative elders who are interested in the younger crowd. Some juniors and seniors get off on introducing the underclassmen (particularly girls) to alcohol, drugs, and of course sex. It’s a game for them, and they don’t care who gets hurt.

‘Best friend’ parents

Many upwardly-mobile parents are pleased their sons and daughters are tight with the in-crowd and overlook the danger signs, including their own inability to see how they are living vicariously through their children.

Large houses with absent or benign-neglect parents become party central. Many parents would rather have their kids use at home than drink and drive, so there’s a lot of “staying over” for the night at a friend’s house and arriving home at noon the next morning. Moms call school with excuses for missing homework and postponed exams.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you are courting big trouble.

Affluent young adults and substance use disorders

Many are surprised to hear that over 20 percent of affluent young adults assess as needing substance use treatment. Our teens under discussion here comprise a good portion of this group.

It’s a simple but vicious cycle for the affluent:

  • Their kids are the popular kids.
  • The popular kids are the kids who grow up too fast and with few limits.
  • The kids who grow up too fast are the kids who end up needing alcohol and drug treatment.

(Most of the remainder are college students with genetic histories of addiction in their families who party hearty in college and trigger their gene.)

Not cool anymore

As these kids age up into their twenties, they think that these “pseudomature” activities will help them maintain their position, but in reality they inhibit true maturation. They get stuck living in their middle-school world, their emotional and intellectual growth stunted by alcohol and drug use. While they’re acting grown-up, their “less-cool” peers are actually growing up – and passing them by.

They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,’ ” Dr. Allen said. “They’re still living in their middle-school world.”

Yes, getting wasted at 24 at the family compound with buddies is no longer just “having a little fun.” Unlimited access to alcohol and drugs with few consequences begins to take its toll – a bitter irony for parents, as the very things they aspired to for their kids sowed the seeds for future dysfunction.

Individuality and confidence

This is one of those situations where the risks associated with popularity and higher socioeconomic status can sink your child. However, this all-too-familiar ending is by no means inevitable. But it takes parents who are really on their game – stars in their own right – who understand the dangers being overinvested in their children’s successes, particularly as surrogates for their own unfulfilled dreams. These parents can help their preteens and teens understand and accept that popularity isn’t the end-all be-all.

“Parents can reinforce qualities that will help them withstand the pressure to be too cool, too fast. … Adolescents who can stick to their own values can still be considered cool, even without doing what others are doing.”

One key task is to keep the dialogue going on how your child feels about being the center of attention. That means taking the time available when your child wants to talk, not when you want to talk. And be a parent – not a friend or cheerleader.

  • Look out for pseudomature behavior and bad-influence older friends.
  • Provide structure and accountability.
  • Homework first.
  • No overnights.
  • Don’t allow the demands of practice and friends to override family time.

It will likely put a dent in your child’s popularity, but far better to suffer through a few teen years in the middle of the pack than all of adulthood in stunted adolescence.

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