Parents are usually glad when their teens and tweens seem to be part of the ‘cool’ group at school. But rather than being reassured, they should be concerned and look more closely at their sons' and daughters' relationships.

The desire to appear popular is a preoccupation for many children and for many reasons. It is normal that kids want to fit in and be accepted by classmates, but as children reach middle school and beyond, some become especially desperate to do so, trying to look older — and cooler — than they actually are.

Children often play dress up and mimic behaviors as part of growing up. Sometimes it's an age-appropriate play activity, sometimes it's a potential threat to successful development of important life skills.

Too Cool: The Pseudo Mature

Kids who seem cool are the mainstay of movies and the media, but for some children being cool becomes an end in itself. As depicted in movies like Mean Girls and Rebel Without a Cause teens struggling with acceptance may seek out older teens or a powerful in-group hoping to attain an identity they don't yet find within themselves. They may dress like someone older, or pretend to act braver than they actually feel.

“Pseudomature behavior” is the term used to describe teens acting more grown-up than their chronological — or emotional — age. A recent study suggests that while acting grown-up may be a successful short-term strategy to achieve peer recognition and popularity, the long-term consequences of this effort can bring problems in late adolescence and even adulthood.

The behaviors get in the way of the adolescents’ developing appropriate coping, relating, and maturing skills to guide them into later teen and adult relationships.

Pseudomature teens and preteens pursue a variety of strategies. Some may seek to appear older and more daring by engaging in mildly destructive behavior that ranges from immature acts to outright delinquency. They aim to show that they are no longer subject to their parents’ and teachers’ rules.

Others may hang out with peers who are judged to be more attractive in order to give the message that they themselves are both sophisticated and successful. Similarly, they may engage in precocious romantic activity to provide an image of maturity and experience beyond their years. Status-seeking is an important piece of pseudomature behavior.

All these behaviors may initially bring greater popularity. The problem is, it doesn’t last, and the behaviors interfere with the adolescents’ developing appropriate coping, relating, and maturing skills to guide them into later teen and adult relationships.

Teens who rely on the trappings of popularity, maturity, and adventure are less successful at social relationships in the long term. Research has also found that these early behaviors tend to become maladaptive as time passes. As their peers mature around them, they are no longer as easily impressed.

Adolescents who had an intense need to be seen as cool actually became less popular as they progressed through adolescence.

More seriously, early minor delinquent behavior can fuel potentially destructive relationships, with deviance-prone peers leading these teens to progress toward more serious acts of deviance over time. For example, minor shoplifting may lead to criminal behaviors, and minor alcohol or substance use may lead to heavier drinking and substance use.

When teens focus on romance too early for their social and emotional skills, they may lose opportunities to develop healthy peer relationships including the abilities to both support and negotiate with their friends.

The Study
Researchers at the University of Virginia followed 175 young people, starting from the seventh and eighth grades, for ten years, as they grew from early adolescence to young adulthood. The adolescents were first assessed over a three-year period at the start of the study and later reassessed from ages 20 to 23.

The participants were evaluated as middle school students. Researchers recorded minor deviant behaviors like shoplifting, the tendency to seek and enter into romantic involvements with older or precocious peers, an interest in having attractive friends, how much the kids valued being popular, as well as their own popularity, substance use, and ability to form close friendships.

Ten years later they were again assessed for substance use and abuse, criminal behavior, how their friends rated them for social competence and the degree to which they saw social status as the reason for ending relationships.

Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Problems

Teens who were preoccupied with being popular and cool in early adolescence were more likely to have social problems years later.

“The findings support the proposition that early adolescent attempts to gain status via pseudomature behavior are not simply passing annoyances of this developmental stage, but are a sign of difficulties developing meaningful social relationships, and may signal movement down a problematic pathway and away from progress toward real psychosocial competence.”

Teens who had an intense need to be seen as cool actually became less popular as they progressed through adolescence. They were less skilled at developing and maintaining social relationships. It appeared that by focusing on superficial markers of friendship and popularity, their social development was effectively stalled.

This finding reinforces the notion that the pseudomature behaviors replace more developmentally appropriate efforts to develop positive social skills and meaningful friendships. This leaves the teens ignorant of important social/emotional skills to apply in later life.

Early minor delinquent behavior can fuel potentially destructive relationships with deviance-prone peers leading these teens to progress toward more serious acts of deviance over time.

Importantly, early pseudomature behavior predicted higher adult levels of more serious criminal behavior, alcohol and drug use, and problems associated with such use. This proved to be a highly accurate marker for such later problems. Again the researchers stressed the association with deviance prone peers and the inappropriate reliance on deviant activities as methods to impress peers as likely explanations for this finding.

Pseudomature behavior does seem to achieve its short-term goal. These young teens are more popular and their peers express the desire to spend time with them because they are “cool.” This reinforces the maladaptive basis of relationships and helps perpetuate the behaviors.

The researchers concluded that it is critical for parents to view children's pseudomature behaviors as more than annoying but expected traits of adolescents.

Parents should pay attention to their children's friends and be on the lookout if their son or daughter suddenly begins hanging out with a new and older crowd, or if they begin to dress and act in a way that seems not only different, but designed to gain the attention of or blend in with a powerful group.

Parents can expect that their adolescents will mount a vigorous defense of their new friends. It may help to explain that while these behaviors are successful in the short term, they are not likely to lead to long-term friendships, but to maladaptive patterns that may cause real problems into adult life. Kids usually know who their real friends are, especially if their parents encourage them to peer below the surface of their relationships.

The study is published in Child Development.