by Simon Smith
Some subjects, by their very nature, can be difficult to teach your child. Take peer pressure for example—how cool (or uncool) is it for you as a parent to try and teach your children about keeping their cool when it comes to acting cool around other kids? Before you try and say that 10 times really fast, realize what you’re dealing with; in order to fit in, your child is wanting to follow along, and it’s other kids who are calling the shots, not you. Most experts will agree that it’s important to teach your teens and tweens that their personal preferences, views and beliefs are what’s important—be true to yourself and friendships will follow.
As a parent, you can help reinforce this with your child, but you need to tread lightly. This is a rebellious time for most kids, and finding their own path to follow often involves parting ways from the positive direction you’ve tried so hard to point them toward. Some estimates say that the average teenager spends anywhere from 20 to 25 hours per week interacting with friends outside of school—a number that rivals or even surpasses time spent with you and other family members.
“Adolescents define themselves more by their peer group than their family group,” says Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., child-education psychologist, associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA, and author of The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety Into Joy and Success.
It’s this desire to fit in with certain social circles that pushes kids to make poor choices in regards to material possessions, friendships, substance abuse and other behaviors. There are many who would tell you to coach your child on how to avoid peer pressure, but this rarely works. It is inevitable that teens, and now even tweens, deal with such stress on a daily basis that circumvention isn’t a practical plan. Instead, a better way to go about things is to neutralize the effect of peer pressure by preparing your child.
“Tell your child peer pressure is a normal part of adolescence,” says Donna Londino, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital. Convey how your child may be influenced to make decisions he or she wouldn’t normally make, and it’s always okay to say no. You should communicate to them that you’re available to help if their “no” puts them in a precarious predicament—otherwise, you should let them navigate these social waters alone.
Because you want to encourage your child to make their own decisions, it’s important not to fall into lecture mode. In their eyes, being told what to do by you is not much different than being told what to do by friends. A more proactive and shareable experience is that of role playing. With you playing the part of the pressuring peer, see how your teen or tween tackles tough subjects like being offered drugs or alcohol. Give them the chance to react how they see fit and judge their performance. Rather than trying to set them straight, offer some suggestions as to how they might better react—but ultimately leave them in control of the situation.
Above all, you’re going to want to empower your teens and tweens to deal with their own issues—one such way to do that is to reaffirm their ability to do so without interference. “Remember what it’s like to be a teen,” says Londino. It’s important to talk and listen, as kids today deal with different difficulties compared to past generations. The more you process about the particulars your child is facing, the better you can help them cope with the stresses that are unique to their situation. Above all, you want to boost their confidence when it comes to handling peer pressure, not badger them for making mistakes.
Also, you should understand why kids make the decisions they do when interacting within their social sphere. “There are two main features that seem to distinguish teenagers from adults in their decision making,” says Laurence Steinberg, a researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia. “During early adolescence in particular, teenagers are drawn to the immediate rewards of a potential choice and are less attentive to the possible risks. Second, teenagers in general are still learning to control their impulses, to think ahead, and to resist pressure from others.” In other words, cut them a little slack. You don’t want your kids to make a big blunder, but mistakes they are going to make. The skills necessary to make such judgement calls develop gradually, as the ability to control their behavior gets better throughout adolescence.
Another great tool in helping kids deal with such issues is the old adage, “turn a negative into a positive.” In other words, not all peer pressure is bad and you should encourage your child to find a group of friends that rely on positive peer pressure. Those in psychological circles might call this positive reinforcement, but when it comes from the child’s own social circle, it can be very powerful.
Examples of positive peer pressure can often involve extracurricular activities like sports or band, situations where peers encourage each other to do their best or engage in friendly competitions that teach teens and tweens to go after goals. Ultimately, the interaction is helpful not hurtful, and it can establish a behavioral model for their teen years and beyond.
Regardless of the approach you take with your children, the important thing is that you work through it together. While peer pressure has a strong influence at this time in their young lives, it by no means is the only time they will encounter it. We all must deal with certain group dynamics throughout our lives that inherently carry certain pressures and responsibilities, from work environments to family interactions, and it’s best that kids learn positive ways to deal with such decisions now as they search for ways to assert themselves as an individual and an adult.