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Today's Child

Back to Today's Child                                                                                                 updated 2/12/00

Peer Pressure

It's a tough world for a teenager -- the pressures of drinking, drugs, sex, and I'm not sure what else.  How can our children stand up to this?  How are they able to maintain their social standing, their self-esteem, their safety, and their dignity? 

The sense of belonging, of being part of a group, of being accepted,  is very important to all of us, especially during the teen years. These teen years are also a time of growing independence.  On the verge of becoming an adult (even though I believe that true adulthood isn't achieved 'till age 25) kids meet up with the pressures of activities which we as adults may think they are not ready for. But the pressures are there.  So how can we prepare our children for these challenges?

Let's first look at some reasons WHY kids cave in to peer pressure.

  • wanting to feel like they belong, and will do whatever it takes to achieve it =>how much 'belonging' do they feel with own family? at school?

  • not able to stand up to someone of authority =>can they 'stand up' to parents? to teachers?

  • wanting to feel and act like an adult =>what responsibilities do they have?

  • wanting to separate from parents -- making their own decisions =>what choices do they have in their lives? 

  • wanting to escape reality by getting drunk etc. =>why the need to escape?

  • needing control over their life =>how much control do they have?

  • just wanting to have fun =>can they set their own safe boundaries?

So, what can we do?

Love and Belonging
Kids need to feel like they belong. From birth we need to be creating a loving environment where children feel safe, part of the family, needed, loved, and respected. At school, do they feel safe, part of the group?  Communication is the key -- can they talk to you? can you talk to them? can they talk to their peers? be assertive? how do you set boundaries, and enforce them? are you fair, polite, assertive, empathetic?  HOW we communicate with them is teaching them something -- are they learning that we are good people, or someone they want to escape from as soon as possible? And are we teaching them HOW to be assertive, social beings?

Standing Up to Authority
When our kids are teenagers, we want them to be able to say "no" to their peers, to the ring leaders, to the bullies.  We want them to know how to handle a situation assertively and without making matters worse.  Should they walk away? ...tell the peers what they want? ...try to negotiate? ...compromise? 
And how do we teach them this skill? We practice it when they are young.  You know the child that turns to you and says, with hand in air "whatever"? He* is learning how to stand up to authority.  Does it push your buttons? Perhaps.. but remember this is what you want him* to do when his* peers try to pressure him* into doing something he doesn't want to do. Is the "whatever" an appropriate way to do it? Perhaps not.  

How DO you want him* to handle disagreeing with an authority figure? 

  • stay in control of emotions?
  • recognize safety issues and how to avoid them?
  • state feelings/ ideas / wishes when appropriate?
  • use appropriate voice tone, wording, body language?
  • suggest compromises / negotiate if possible?
  • deal with frustration when negotiations 'fail'?

When the child does do the "whatever" technique (or yelling, kicking, saying 'no',  etc.) this is a great opportunity to teach them the above skills.  Help them recognize their anger/frustration and express it properly. Help them talk to you in an appropriate way and empathize with them.  That means that you can appreciate where they are coming from--not that you have to agree with them, or give in to them-- just understand them. They have and have the right to their own feelings and wishes -- accept that and respect that.  But on the other hand, they shouldn't be abusive or coercive.   Saying something like "You are very angry at me right now. Let's calm down and then discuss this."  can help them stay in control.  Then negotiate if appropriate or help them deal with their frustration, but do listen!
If they can confront you and feel confident in doing so, they can confront their peers when they need to as well. 

Taking On Adult Role
From a very early age, children continue to develop skills that make them a "big person", an adult.  And so we give them the skills to become independent -- or we try, anyway.  If we see our role as one that tells kids what to do, when to do it, and how to do it,  they are not learning how to be independent, but rather the opposite. They are learning how to listen to others, and do as they are told, but not how to think on their own.  Imagine their self-esteem! How confident do you think they would feel? How mature do you think they would feel, or be? And will they want to rebel when they hit the teen years?
Knowing that teens want to feel like an adult, we need to be ensuring that we treat them as such...right from day one! Ask for their opinions, give them the right to make their own choices (when appropriate), and handle the consequences (with your help of course if they ask), treat them with respect. If they feel like they are an adult, they won't have the need to go out and prove it.

Making Own Decisions
Along the same line as above, kids need to learn how to make their own decisions.  Again, if we continually tell them what to do they do not learn how to make choices, and how to decide what is the best choice. some things that can help are: starting them out small with "do you want this or that"; talking to them about decisions to be made; helping them think of all the options, and the consequences of each; helping them deal with the consequences; being at their side to help but not to control. A hard balancing act, but a vital one.

Escaping, Control
In my opinion, if kids have been given the skills to make good choices, to be in control of their lives, to believe in boundaries, then they won't have the need to escape their reality, will feel in control, and will enjoy life.  It is when we feel 'out of control' that we feel trapped and lost and just want to run away. Helping kids learn how to stay "in control" gives them a life they don't end up wanting to escape. 

Don't we all just wanna' have fun!?  Teenage years can be the best years -- social get-togethers, sports, friends galore, dances, singing, pep rallies... gee, almost makes me want to go back. (Almost!) So how do we let kids have their fun, but within boundaries? 
What are your boundaries? Are they reasonable? Are they respectful?  Are they giving the kids as much control over their lives as is appropriate?  Are they helping kids make choices, safely? Are we teaching them to be respectful of others at the same time? Have we let them set their own boundaries?
Again, helping them make choices through the early years, helps them make good choices when the "fun" times come around during the teen years. Stop, think, choose, act. 

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copyright, 1999: Debbie Roswell