The Influence of Peer Pressure
Being a kid isn't always easy; as kids get older, it can become more and more difficult for them to find their place. Children are often torn between their parents and their peers. Often, the foundation that was built from an early age will be tested as the older child is faced with new pressures within his peer group.
Positive and Negative Influences
The influence that our children's friends have on them is not always a negative one. Often it can be the very friends they hang out with that encourage them to make good choices in their developmental years. When entering middle school and high school, children can be introduced to new groups of kids who may be involved with drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors. If your child has a strong peer group before they are faced with the negative influences, it can make it much easier for them to say "No!"
"My son has never been involved with drugs, drinking or any other activity that I know other kids were at his school," says Christine Long of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. "He is almost 18 years old and has always had a small group of friends that he hung out with. He is also the type of child that had a strong sense of who he was, and he didn't much care if people liked him or not."
Long had to bite her tongue when, at the age of 11, her son started dyeing his hair blonde, got an earring and began wearing baggy-style clothing. "It was then I learned to pick my battles," she says. "He had great friends and was a kind, loving child. He was just experimenting with his identity. As hard as it was, I chose to let him be himself and make his own choices."
Though there are many positive influences surrounding your children, there is also a down side. Pre-adolescents are confronted with situations that will cause them to make some very important decisions. Negative peer pressure can cause great stress for young teens struggling to discover their individuality and gain independence from their parents.
"I have been trying to teach them not to bend to peer pressure since they were babies," says Yvette DeLuca of Glendale, Ariz. "The favorite saying in our house is 'Weird is good.' My daughter does what she wants, and her friends are blown away."
DeLuca is ultimately telling her children that they are wonderful just as they are. This builds self-esteem at a young age and helps encourage kids to make the right choices when they become adolescents. A child who is confident and self-assured will likely feel less inclined to look for approval by following the crowd.
"Encourage your child's unique qualities and interests," says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "Avoid comparing him to siblings and peers. Help him appreciate what is special and unique about him."
The Formative Years
"Pre-adolescents typically value conformity with their peers, and during these years, the peer influences and pressures can be particularly powerful," says Glasser. " They may experience pressure from peers to engage in a variety of behaviors including experimenting with drugs and alcohol and engaging in sexual activity."
Glasser reminds parents that it would be unrealistic to expect that their preteen child could avoid being on the receiving end of some peer pressure. As they go through a series of rapid physical, emotional and social changes, pre-adolescents tend to feel more of a desire to have their peer group as a central role in their lives. It is perfectly normal for children this age to pull away from their family and lean more on their friends.
"As your child enters his teen years, he will be seeking the company, counsel and approval of his peers more frequently than in previous years," Glasser says. "Although there may be times when your child will appear to value peer relationships more than his relationship with you, remain present and available in his life."
Stay Involved and Informed
Even as they reach these years where they are struggling for their independence, your role as a parent continues to be a huge influence on their lives. "When possible, get to know your child's friends and their families," Glasser says. "Invite friends over after school or on weekends. This will enable you to supervise your child with his peers and help you gain insight into his relationship with others."
Parents should encourage their pre-adolescents to join in on activities that promote positive role models and encourage social interactions with a variety of children. As a parent, be aware of who they are hanging out with. Organized activities are often a great way to allow your child the opportunity to meet different groups of children so they are not overly influenced by one particular group or individual child.
"Sometimes children do not feel comfortable asserting themselves with strong peers," Glasser says. "Talk with your child about this issue. If he hasn't yet experienced peer pressure, you can talk to him about how this can happen and how he might respond. If he is currently experiencing a challenging situation with a peer, he may be receptive to participating in a role-play or brainstorming session with you to identify various ways to handle the situation."
When communicating with your child about peer pressure, ask your child for his ideas and allow him the opportunity to tell you what his thoughts are on how he would handle specific situations. It is important that he knows you trust his judgment.
"My daughter has been a totally different child," Long says. "Her personality is such that I find her constantly choosing the wrong friends. She tends to be a follower and so I have to be much more aware of what she is doing and with whom."
Long says her daughter has found out the hard way that friends aren't always what they seem. She has been deceived and disappointed over the years with several girls she would have considered friends. Long feels her daughter struggles with self-confidence issues and that is why she tends to choose friends that are not right for her.
"It's almost as though she feels she doesn't deserve a good friend," Long says. "We are constantly talking about self-worth and respect. It's an ongoing thing when they are young and impressionable."
"Keep the lines of communication open," Glasser says. "Your child will be more likely to approach you to discuss challenges and concerns when you remain non-judgmental and respectful of his feelings."
Live and Learn
It is our primary role as parents to protect our children. As they grow older, it is often difficult for parents to let go of some of the control we are used to having in their lives. Pre-adolescents need to have the opportunity to make their own choices and will quickly learn what works for them and what doesn't.
"With your support, your child can learn to appreciate his unique qualities," Glasser says. "As [he makes] independent and responsible decisions, he will gradually learn to negotiate adolescent relationships and influences."
If you feel your child is having great difficulty with peer relationships – where it affects self-image, moods and performance in school or in relationships at home – be sure to contact a professional.