How to Tell the Difference Between a Clique and Friends

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During the middle school and high school years, kids are developing closer friendships and trying to figure out where they belong. And as everyone struggles to find their place, cliques and bullying become more prominent. 

Consequently, identifying the differences between a close-knit group of friends and a clique is essential. Here are some important differences between the two.

Groups of Friends

Friendships naturally form around things that people have in common. As a result, it is just as natural for football players to hang out together as it is for the mathletes. Likewise, groups can form around band, drama club, even liking the same music or movies. Kids often feel supported and welcomed because of their similar interests.

It’s also normal for kids to move in and out of different groups or to be part of several groups at one time.

For instance, a high school girl might hang out with the volleyball team one day and the yearbook staff another day. Even within a group, kids may have one or two friends that they feel closer to.  

People also move in and out of groups as they develop new interests, make friends or just realize that they have less in common than they used to. As time passes, some groups of friends will become closer while others drift apart.

Do not automatically assume that all groups of friends are cliques. It’s normal for kids to want to spend time with people that they have things in common with. And it’s also natural that occasionally someone will be left out. But in a healthy friendship, this is never done intentionally. Usually invites to parties and other outside activities are dictated by space limitations. 

Groups of friends also tend to be supportive of one another. They accept the people in their group, quirks and all.

They are supportive of another person’s differences and do not dictate that they conform to certain standards to be part of the group. Additionally, what makes these friendships just a group and not a clique is the level of control within the group.

People are free to be themselves within a group of friends. There is no one dictating what they should wear or who they can hang out with. They also are welcoming when they meet others who have some of the same interests. 

Remember, friends can display unkind behavior at times, but this does not mean they are bullies. It is important to recognize the difference between toxic people and fake friends and those that are just having a bad day. 


Sometimes a group of friends is actually a clique. Typically, kids in these groups make it clear to outsiders that not just anyone can join and be part of their group. Another determining factor is that cliques often focus on maintaining their popularity or status.

They accomplish this by making those on the outside feel like they are less important than those inside the clique. What's more, people in cliques are notorious for using their perceived power as a way to hurt or bully others. They often exclude, ostracize and leave out others on purpose.

Cliques also are mean. And this meanness isn’t always limited to those on the outside.

People in cliques sometimes even hurt their own members by trying to control or "fix" them in some way. This can include giving unwanted makeovers, dictating clothing choices, telling them how to act and limiting outside friendships. Individuality is not rewarded or encouraged within a clique.

Additionally, people in cliques often believe that if they make fun of others, spread gossip or use other types of relational aggression, that they will be popular. So, they bully to get attention, to get what they want and to punish people they are jealous of.

Unlike a group of friends, cliques usually do not socialize outside of their group. Instead, they do everything together including eating lunch together, sitting together in class and hanging out together after school. Rarely will they welcome an outsider into the group unless they believe doing so will serve some sort of purpose.

Some teens are attracted to cliques because they place high importance on being popular or cool. Cliques give them a place where they can attain social status and feel like they belong.

Cliques also are attractive to kids that like to be in charge or thrive on control. Meanwhile, for kids that prefer to follow rather than lead, cliques can be a very dangerous place. Teens who are followers often find themselves making poor choices or following along on things they do not really agree with.

Finally, cliques often exclude well-liked kids who pose a threat to the clique leadership. In other words, if the leaders in the clique see someone as a threat, that person will likely be excluded and maybe even bullied or cyberbullied.

The clique does this in an attempt to take away the person’s perceived power or threat. They may even befriend the person’s closest friends as a way to isolate the person and diminish her social status.

A Word From Verywell

Healthy friendships are an important part of teen life. For this reason, parents need to encourage and foster friendships in their kids' lives. One way to do this is by encouraging your child to invite a friend or two over to hang out.

Aside from helping your teen feel connected to her world and others, positive friendships can go a long way in preventing bullying. Remember, bullies tend to target socially-isolated kids, but will think twice before bullying a teen with a strong social circle.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kuther TL. Child and Adolescent Development in Context. SAGE Publications. 2020.

  2. KidsHealth from Nemours. Coping with cliques. Updated July 2018.