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Oregon Family Magazine

a parents guide...

02/29/2016 10:35PM ● By Sandy Kauten
When Nico Edrich first moved to Merrill, WI, the twelve-year-old was immediately faced with pressure from other kids to fit in. The popular group told him he couldn’t be friends with them if he hung around with the kids from the “poorer” side of town and that he’d also need a girlfriend if he wanted to be part of their crowd. He came home and told his mother about the incident and decided, on his own, that his less affluent friend was worth more than the kids making demands on him. He told the peer pressurers he wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend at his age and that he was going to play basketball with his friend – the child the others didn’t find acceptable.  “He learned the true value of friendship, and what it means to stand up for what you believe in,” said his mother, Alyice. “And later, he learned how proud we were of him!”

Not every child reacts that way, say experts. Many kids want to fit in with their peers, often even when it means doing things that they know are wrong such as smoking, lying, drinking, using drugs, stealing, or cheating.

This “peer pressure”, i.e. pressure from inside or outside themselves to be like other people, isn’t necessarily good or bad. It plays a big role in the way we determine who we are and how we act or dress. It can, however, cause problems if we violate our own boundaries, values, or sense of identity.

The children who are most susceptible and succumb to peer pressure lack assertiveness skills or high self esteem. They often don’t recognize that they have choices and that no matter what one says or does, not everyone is going to be their friend. In essence, they don’t see another option besides going along with the crowd.

Annelise Goldstein is hoping that she’s giving her five-year-old daughter, Helena, good coping skills. Although they live in Denmark, her child goes through many of the same issues already at her young age with children pressuring her to fit in over something as mundane as lunch. One day, Helena came home from kindergarten and told her mother another child had taken one look inside her lunch box and pronounced, “ham and cheese don’t go together, and that the dried apricots I have in my lunch look like goat poop.”

What ensued was a conversation about likes and dislikes and the value of sticking to your own personal preference, rather than opting for those of someone else (the other child, by the way, thought beets and liver pate were a better lunch choice). “My daughter, though only 5, really got the point of this incident and has used it as an example when other peer pressure incidents have happened. She has been able to integrate the knowledge and use it. Hopefully it will help her later on when it gets tougher.”  Experts say Goldstein handled the situation well and offered these tips to help children combat peer pressure:

Use the STOP, THINK, ACT approach

Pat Smallwood, LMFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Parkview Employee Assistance Program in Fort Wayne, Indiana, noted that peer pressure often results in an impulsive decision. Kids don’t always recognize that they have a choice in choosing their behavioral response.

She advocates reciting the mantra, “STOP, THINK, then…ACT” to help kids recognize that their actions are a choice and that there are consequences for their behaviors. Helping kids to think through consequences is very important, said Smallwood. If a child can ask themselves questions about possible consequences, then choose their response that can reduce the impulsiveness of their behavior. For example, if they ask, “If I steal what might happen?” “Are the consequences good or bad?” “Do I have other options besides following a peer’s recommendations?” they may arrive at the right conclusion on their own.

Help kids see “peer pressure” really means “peer choice”

Although kids want to “fit in,” children should recognize they can choose their friends and what they do together. Then the “everyone else is doing it” line becomes a lousy excuse for choosing to do something with peers that will hurt themselves or others. Recognizing that they can choose peers that will accept them the way they are is an important life skill that transcends childhood and adolescence.

Sometimes parents need to be creative in helping their children connect with other kids that have similar interests, whether that be through sports, church, theatre, dance, music, art, etc. Parents should also take an active role in promoting contacts with peer groups that are likely to promote positive life choices. For example, if your child excels in computer skills, helping them connect with a computer club or camp might expose them to another peer group with similar interest.

Use humor

Helping kids recognize that they can cajole peers and still stick to their own positive choices is a good skill set to have. One adolescent noted that when he was asked to smoke marijuana, he would laugh and recite, “Oh, no thanks. I like my brain cells.” Using a funny line with a negative situation empowers the youth to identify options rather than giving in. Having this “line” in the memory bank assures one’s preparedness when that “offer” from a peer comes at a time that is least expected.

Know boundaries ahead of time, and role-play

Smallwood also recommended getting kids to talk about what their beliefs and values are and how they might handle a future compromising situation, a technique called “anticipatory guidance”. Before they are presented with an awkward situation, have your child discuss what is important and why certain behaviors are important to them. For example, if not having premarital sex is an important value, have kids describe what they might do in a situation where they are being pushed too far. This helps them prepare for a situation before it happens. Smallwood noted assertiveness is a skill best practiced ahead of time through role playing. She recommended challenging your child with what could happen and then having them try different responses. Helping them know what their code of conduct is and practicing assertiveness by saying what they think, feel, want, or believe is acknowledging that they have personal rights.

Learn from mistakes

Often the most challenging lessons are learned by giving into peer pressure — this goes for both kids and parents. Remember, judgment is developmental and the decisions kids make often not only reflect peer pressure but simply a lack of critical judgment and insight. Parents need to not overreact to their children’s poor choices.

They should communicate that their love is unconditional, but that they are disappointed with their child’s decisions. Parents that have a close relationship with their child know disappointment, rather than anger, will be a strong motivator for helping their child evaluate the consequences for poor judgment and rethink what led to the situation.

Seek professional assistance

Parents also need time to reflect upon how they have personally responded to their kid’s poor judgment and take responsibility when they have said or done something that is hurtful or harmful to the relationship. Talking with a minister, guidance counselor, or mental health clinician or social worker can assist a parent in recognizing that they too have choices in how they respond to their child’s behaviors.

The most important thing parents can do to help their children weather the storms of peer pressure is to work on communication with their kids. A positive relationship at home is a good motivator for helping children choose to make good decisions.

For reading material, try Michael Popkin’s Active Parenting or Myrna Shure’s Raising a Thinking Child.