By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.
“We learn to fit in before we learn to belong.” – Ana Sokolovic, M.S., Clinical Psychologist and Author
Beginning at an early age, we are conscious of our surroundings and the people who create that framework. The influence from members of our peer group, at any age, can be both positive and negative, both direct and indirect, spoken, and unspoken. At its best, peer pressure can encourage someone to make wiser, healthier decisions. At its most negative, peer pressure can lead to a loss of individuality, a perceived reason to engage in destructive, harmful, or unsafe behaviors. Responding to peer pressure can change our attitudes as we may fear rejection and embrace conformity.
We often think of peer pressure as being an external influence—someone talking or encouraging someone else to accept a particular behavior or belief. That is true, but may leave the person, especially a child, thinking that they are not responsible for the choices they make. For instance, they run into the street to get the ball and blame their “friend” who told them it was okay. As parents, a more accountable way to approach peer pressure is to explain that we choose certain behaviors because we want to be “like someone” or to be “liked by someone.” The decision is ours to make and we need to be willing to accept or face the consequences of that decision.
Peer pressure begins at a young age. As is true for the prevention of many risky behaviors, parents can help their children identify and respond to peer pressure in ways that are supportive rather than detrimental to their growth. Here are some suggestions:
- Encourage your child to trust their “gut.” If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
- Talk about the characteristics of a true friend as someone who may make suggestions but doesn’t force you to do something. Whenever possible, meet their friends.
- Teach them about the different types of peer pressure (positive and negative).
- Share situations where you may have been influenced by peer pressure—how did you assess the risks and consequences of your choices.
- Build trusting relationships that do not include blaming, rejection, or disappointment. Make conscious efforts to show that you love and care about them.
- Avoid “fixing” your child’s decisions. As much as is possible, children need to be accountable for their choices.
- Suggest ways to say “no” and help them find the words and phrases their comfortable using. Of course, there is always the tried-and-true, “My parents will kill me.”
- Use teachable moments using movies and TV shows to talk about some of the choices the characters make.
In her article, “Examples of Positive and Negative Peer Pressure” published on moninformed.com, psychologist Ana Sokolovic may offer the best advice. She writes that as parents, “we should not strive to lower peer pressure, but to help kids choose wisely what (and who) they allow to influence them. They do not force you to be more like they are, but to be a better version of who you want to be.”
Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.