One evening, while at a charity dinner, I sat next to a young mother of a teenage boy. She was concerned that her son was having a difficult time adjusting to his new school. Not because he did not like the school, but rather that, as a teenager, he entered an environment highly charged with peer pressure. As the only new boy on the block, he did not have any support from historical friendships. As a result, he was on his own, the target both of bullying and peer pressure.
This is not a unique story, but sadly, one that has happened daily, in every school, everywhere. Just recently on the news, there was a story about a young pre-teen girl’s parents, who became so frustrated with peer pressure at their child’s school, that they packed up their family and moved away.
So, what’s going on that’s causing so much pain and suffering for children?
We think of peer pressure as only impacting teens. We are all cognizant that teens go through a tremendous physical and emotional transformation that affects their bodies and minds. Yet we can see peer pressure even in nursery school.
Consequently, it’s not only about the changes children are going through, but also, an adjustment to the hierarchy of peer group socialization. All children – in fact, all people – want to be accepted and liked. This creates within children the need to conform, and not disappoint friends… going along, to get along.
So, what can be done to help children successfully navigate the stormy waters of peer pressure?
Here are some tactics to help:
- A well-bonded child can handle peer pressure better than one who is not. By bonding with your child, you create within him a strong central core. This establishes good self-esteem and a strong sense of self, and this is his best inoculation against peer pressure.
- Bad behavior is contagious. Pay attention to your child’s friends; know who they are and how they behave, their style of dress, their use of technology and social media, and the substances they do or do not use. Knowledge is power; weed your child’s garden while you still have the chance.
- Parents are entitled to parent. Parents are entitled to parent, and if you don’t, you’ll leave a vacuum for your child to be parented by his peer group. As an alert parent, you should know your child, and know the signs to look for if you think he is in trouble. Be present, engaged, and validate and respect your child. If you do, he will tell you everything. He really does want time with you, and yes, he really does care what you think. Therefore, stay involved in his life.
- Communication is key. Talk, talk, talk, and never stop talking or actively listening to your child. Never discount his feelings; show respect for him and what he is going through. If you value your child, he will value himself, and be more likely to stand up to peer pressure.
- Make sure your child knows the rules – your rules. If those rules are violated, it is important to follow through with the appropriate consequences that have been discussed, and accepted, before the violation occurred. This teaches your child not just about responsibility for his behavior, but also, how to, with your guidance, successfully move on.
- Advocate for your child. You are the most important advocate for your child. If your child is the victim of peer pressure, his best chance to say no, is you. Tell him to use you as an excuse to say no, that your shoulders are wide and strong, and that you can handle it. Be on his side, and let him know, by word and by deed, that he can count on you, no matter what.
- Practice and rehearse. Practice and rehearse with your child ahead of time. Teach him the appropriate actions, and strategies that he can use, when confronted with peer pressure.
- Role play. Role-play various scenarios in advance of peer pressure situations, and their antidotes. Then, when faced with poor choices, your child can, with your help, make good ones.
- Be what you want to see. If you want your child to surround himself with friends who have good values and positive behaviors, then you must do the same. Children are tuned in to hypocrisy, and if you allow yourself to be influenced by social climbing, social networking, and business relationships with people you neither like nor respect… your child will get that message. Now is the time to think about your own social choices, and peer pressure, so that you can model healthy ones for your child.
- My empathic process. Don’t over-react when your child conforms to peer pressure. Use my empathic process to stay calm and work things through with your child. Sit down in a neutral space – a kitchen is a great location for this– and, taking equal time between you and your child, actively listen while talking about your feelings, without defense. Then, together, you talk for the last third of your time, problem-solving, collaborating, and establishing consequences. By bringing your child into the process, and investing him in his own problem-solving, he will be more likely to be responsible for his behavior. My empathic process builds not only security, but also, a feeling of belonging, of family identity.
And finally, it is important to recognize that not all peer pressure is bad. If you pay attention and help your child find peers who share his values, and yours, he can be positively influenced by good examples of honesty and loyalty. By giving your child a good feedback system and teaching him about good supportive relationships, you are teaching him what friendship is all about. If he needs someone to talk to when he feels stressed, disappointed, or fearful, he can reach for that friend he can trust, as well as you, and you can feel confident that he will get the right advice.
This is how you help your child be authentic with himself and his friendships. These are the lasting ties that bind and that allow your child to feel confident and competent in who he is himself, rather than needing the approval of others who do not share his interests or values.
At the end of the day, remember: you are the greatest influence over your child’s life and future. Take this job seriously, and you will ensure not only his success, but yours.