By Laurie Herrick, Preventionist
When children are young, they seek approval from their parents. As they get older, around 12 years of age, they begin to care more about how their peers see them. There can be a fear of rejection, not fitting in, or being left out. This can have a big effect on young adolescents who desperately want to be accepted by their peers. For adolescents, the need to "fit in" may be a powerful motivator that can lead them to inappropriate behavior.
I think it is helpful if we look at the definition of peer pressure. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines peer pressure as "a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one's age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them." When working with children, I explain peer pressure more simply by telling them that it is "when someone around our age tries to get us to do something we don't want to do". I emphasize that it is important that we do not use the word "force" because ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions and therefore, any of the consequences that may follow those actions.
Often, we think of peer pressure in relation to alcohol or other drugs. However, there can be good and bad peer pressure. An example of good peer pressure could be encouraging someone to study more so they can improve their grades. Adults are subject to peer pressure too. For example, buying products that we do not need or giving into unhealthy behaviors can be forms of peer pressure.
There are a few ways parents can help kids combat peer pressure:
It is one of the most important things parents can do. When your child comes to you and wants to talk, make time for them and give them your full attention. It is important to not interrupt them, even if they tell you something that upsets you. You want to be their safe space. If they feel they cannot talk to you, it may discourage future conversations. If you need a few minutes to get your thoughts together, it is acceptable to tell your child, "I hear what you said to me and I am happy that you came to me, but I need a few minutes to think about the best way to respond to you or the best way to help you". It is okay for parents to not have all the answers. However, make sure you circle back to your child and address their questions and needs.
Get to know their friends, keep track of what they are involved in while at school, what their favorite and least favorite subjects are, what they are doing after school, who they talk to, etc. Be sure to ask open-ended questions about their day, not only questions that require a yes or no answer. For example, "What was the best part of your day in school?" It is crucial that you monitor your child's activities on social media or the internet and address any concerns with them.
3. Talk about independence with your child
Have conversations with them that focus on how to choose friends, how to make healthy choices, and who is in their support system if they need someone to talk to.
4. Teach them to say "no"
Practice refusal skills and role-play different scenarios with them. Explain to them that it will be difficult at times to resist peer pressure or to go against the group. Nevertheless, they need to be prepared in knowing what to say or what to do. Come up with a code word or sentence that your child can use if they find themselves in a bad situation. An example could be, "I want pizza for dinner tonight" and this could be a signal that you need to pick up your child as soon as possible or that your child feels they are in a dangerous situation.
5. Tell your child it is okay to say no and walk away
Educate your child so they understand that they need to stop and think before they make a decision. They will need to evaluate the consequences of their actions. Sometimes, we want to protect our children from hearing about things that may scare or harm them, but ultimately, parents need to make it their responsibility to educate kids about dangerous situations.
6. Set clear family rules and stick to them
If there are family rituals that are important to you, make sure your child understands them. For some families, eating dinner together is a part of their everyday routine and each person is expected to be there. Set clear limits regarding electronics or screen time and stick to them. Establish age-appropriate chores to promote responsibility. Emphasize your family values and work to provide a safe and secure environment for your child.
7. Celebrate your child's achievements
Teach them to be proud of themselves and to shower others with kindness. Remind them that they want to treat others the way they want to be treated. It might be beneficial to promote your child involvement in sports, theater, dance or an academic activity. Also, find ways to have your child involved in the community. This leads to a sense of community pride and respectfulness of neighbors. There will be a time when your child will make the wrong choice or a bad decision. When that happens, love and support your child and help them understand that a bad decision does not make them a bad person.
I want to add that even though many schools have virtual or hybrid models in place, it does not mean that the risk of peer pressure will necessarily decrease. Kids are expressing that they are encountering peer pressure through video games, computer games, and social media, so it is important to stay vigilant.
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