When most people think about popularity, they think about the “cool” kids– i.e. who is the most visible, dominant and influential. This type of popularity, emphasizing status and power, is often the holy grail among adolescents.

But it turns out that the kind of popularity that really makes us flourish is the type that has to do with likeability. When we are well liked, not only do we get treated well by others, doors to new critical skill building opportunities begin to open, too.

Research shows that kids who are likeable are invited to more social events, which subsequently creates a context where they can learn new social competencies like effective communication and conflict resolution. And, as they grow up and move into romantic and workplace relationships, they are ahead of the game because they have had more opportunities to learn about and negotiate complex interpersonal relationships.

A growing body of psychological research from Mitchell J. Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, is revealing remarkable connections between our childhood experiences with peers and our lives in adulthood.

It turns out that studies identifying how well one is liked by peers in 4th grade allows researchers to make pretty good predictions about that individual’s social life as an adult. Researchers have identified five groups of children who grow up to have very different lives:

  • “Accepted” kids: picked by virtually all of their peers as someone that is liked the most
  • “Rejected” kids: often picked as disliked
  • “Neglected” kids: very rarely picked for either question. They seem to be somewhat invisible – kids don’t really notice them much at all.
  • “Controversial” kids: highly visible, known by everyone – but in a love-hate relationship with their peers. Controversial kids are nominated by their peers as liked and as disliked in pretty equal proportions.
  • “Average” kids: but most tend to veer towards one of the other groups

Interestingly, these groups are pretty stable as we grow up. Of course, not everyone who was rejected as a child turns out to have difficulties in adulthood, just as not everyone who was accepted has a lifetime of success. However, findings have been remarkably consistent in suggesting that this simple classification into five groups of likeability in elementary school is a stronger predictor of our adult lives than we ever thought.

In fact, we even have some evidence to suggest that how likeable you were in elementary school is affecting how you parent your own children, and how liked they will be as they grow up.

It’s no surprise that social acceptance is so important to adults and adolescents alike—our brains are hardwired for connection and belonging. In fact, recent research shows that when we’re at risk of being isolated, it activates pain centers in our brain, indicating that losing social connections is one of the worst things that can happen to us.

So, it appears that pursuing likeability—as opposed to the fleeting traits of status and power– is a worthwhile and meaningful goal. But how can we become more likeable?

Research shows that those who are most well liked will:

  • Have strong leadership skills
  • Easily show empathy for others
  • Allow everyone to feel included
  • Conveys others’ opinions as being important

Use this list as a reference point: how well are you and your teen embodying these traits every day? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: insight without action is worthless! Take the time to identify highly specific strategies for putting this list into practice and watch your likeability soar.

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