Peer pressure in childhood: What can parents can do to help?
Most people will face peer pressure at some stage in their life – the expectation put on them to behave in a certain way or else face negative consequences (teasing, exclusion or worse). I think it’s fair to say that most people who experience it will have first come across it in childhood, where peer pressure is rife.
We often minimise events when they happen to children, without even noticing it. Because children are smaller we can see them as having a smaller emotional range and less capacity to be affected by life. We may also subconsciously see them as having plenty of time to ‘get over things’. I think it is for this reason that we like to create euphemisms for negative events that happen to children and hence we talk about ‘peer pressure’ instead of coercion, which is what it really is.
In younger children peer pressure starts implicitly- often with toy trends where lots of kids start playing with the same thing, or when certain characters from a movie become popular. In these situations children will start to feel a desire to be the same as the others, and sometimes an obligation to be the same in order to fit in. Our brains naturally want to group things together, to find our tribe and to put things into neat categories, so this makes perfect sense. Being the same as others feels safe.
I once spoke to a child who was playing with an Elsa doll; this was a couple of years ago when the Frozen craze first hit the scene. I asked her what she thought about the film.
“I haven’t seen the film”, the girl replied. I chatted to her a bit longer. She hadn’t got the doll because of admiration for the character; she’d got it because all her friends were playing with it and she wanted to be the same as them.
This was a fairly harmless and very mild example, but peer pressure can have extremely detrimental effects as children are coerced into behaviours they aren’t happy with that cause themselves or other people harm. Typical behaviours for younger children to be coerced into are being friends with (or rejecting) certain people or participating in a new trend (when I was at school it was yo-yos and Pogs; at the rate kids are growing up nowadays it’s probably virtual reality headsets and 3D lipliner).
Typical behaviours for teenagers to be coerced into are smoking, drinking, shoplifting, taking drugs and sex. When I was in high school I distinctly remember it being a ‘thing’ that people felt that to be cool they had to lose their virginity before it became legal- i.e., to be sexually active at age 15 or younger. It was the same with drinking and smoking- once it became legal it came with a lot less social credit.
Teenagers today feel an immense amount of pressure to be on certain social networks. When talking to teenage girls I know it appears that they feel incredibly ‘demanded’ to be available pretty much 24/7 on platforms like Snapchat, despite the obvious toll it takes on their stress levels and mental health.
So as parents, what do we do? I think helping our children navigate peer pressure starts at a very young age; as soon as they are interacting with us and other people. Here are 14 ideas for helping your child deal with peer pressure, from early childhood through to teens.
14 ideas for helping your child cope with peer pressure
- Try to ask your child’s opinion on as many things as you can in family life, and respect them as an equally valuable member of the family. If our kids grow up in an environment where their voice is heard and respected they will accept this as the norm, and be better equipped to say ‘no’ when their peers pressure them into unwanted behaviour. The very crux of peer pressure for a child is having to override how they feel in order to comply with someone else’s demands, so having their thoughts and feelings respected from the start creates a great protective ‘layer’ for them. Our brains seek out the familiar whether it is positive or negative, so the way their autonomy is respected at home will have an impact on how they react to pressure from others.
2. When your child is young, don’t force them to share. Not only is this pointless- children don’t learn to share by having things they like taken off them- but if we do this we convey the message that their feelings matter less than the image we want them to portray. Instead of taking toys off your child to ‘share’ with someone else, ask your child to pass the toy to the next person when they are finished. This is how the adult world works too- I would never go over to Patrick and take a book off him because I wanted to read it- so I think this a good way of navigating the sharing issue and showing your child that their decisions and personal space are important.
3. Help your child start a journal. Journals are excellent ways of helping children process what has happened throughout the day, and to help them unpick their thoughts and feelings about what has happened. They can also be a great ‘dumping ground’ for worries, helping kids relax and unwind. Ensure that your child knows that their journal is their own private, safe space just for them- the average child doesn’t get a whole lot of privacy so this can be a great way to give them time and space to process.
4. Try to find alternatives to making your child do what you want them to do, all the time. Think about it: if a child is repeatedly told throughout childhood ‘do this or else’, what tools are they going to have when the same threat comes from their peers? This post on obedience vs compliance might be helpful.
5. Rather than dictating what you think your child should do under the threat of punishment, try to partner with your child to find solutions that work for everyone. You might want to check out my guide on how to live with your child without using punishment (and what we do instead) here.
6. Coach your child. Literally role-play different scenarios and use the time to figure out with your child things that they can do and say to get themselves out of an uncomfortable situation. Good examples to practise with would be if their friends were pressuring them to be unpleasant to one member of their friendship group, or offering them drugs at school.
7. Have a no-questions policy. That is to say, if your teenager calls you to say they need to come home NOW, you pick them up with no questions asked and no punishments (even if they are drunk). This creates a safety net where teens know they can remove themselves from uncomfortable or unsafe situations without facing repercussions, instead of worrying about what their parents are going to say or do (often leading to more lies and trouble).
8. Have a ‘blame-me’ policy. This is where if a teen wants to be picked up from a party or other social event, you as a parent will provide a reason so that they can blame you for needing to be picked up now (for example ‘my mum needs to take the car to the garage so has to come get me now’ or ‘dad won’t let me stay out past 12’). This helps to protect the teen’s social credit while giving them a safe get-out if they need one.
9. Enrol your kids in a martial art. This seems extreme until teens start going out drinking and teenager-ing and getting into all sorts of scrapes. Having a good knowledge of self-defence is an excellent way of protecting themselves if the coercion in a situation turns into force. Ju-juitsu is a great option as it teaches students how to restrain an opponent even if the opponent is much larger than the defender.
10. Help your child think through situations that they are unhappy with. If they feel like they acted in a way they didn’t like, or they are facing a situation that they don’t know how to handle, have them write down 3 columns: the situation; how they are handling it; and what they would do differently next time. Reassure them that we all make mistakes, offer them ways to rectify mistakes they have made and ensure that they know it is all a learning process.
11. Model autonomous behaviour. If we get our own self-esteem from other people’s opinions of us, our children will copy this pattern. If we talk about ourselves negatively, our children will hear this and perpetuate it in their own lives. If we are constantly on our phones or social media, this is where our kids will get their self-worth too. Try to model a life that is based on your own integrity and passions, and not worrying about what other people think- this is what your children will see and model their own lives on.
12. Talk about social media. There is little point banning or limiting it if we are not engaged in an ongoing conversation about the nature of the online world. Recently I explained to Esmae that whether someone has 6 or 6000 ‘likes’ on a post or video, it will never seem enough because our brains are wired to always want more. I deleted the YouTube app off my phone to stop me checking it (great decision) and explained to her that no matter how happy the people online seem, ultimately it is not reality. It’s so easy for kids (and adults) to forget this and aspire to something that doesn’t exist, leading to behaviours that are not intrinsically motivated but based on superficial reward feedback. (This is not to bash YouTube or other social media, I love many things about it but I’m also aware of its pitfalls). The more our kids are used to doing things for ’likes’ or rewards the easier it is for them to be peer pressured into behaviour they don’t want to do for the sake of other people’s opinions.
13. Try to avoid giving ‘rewards’ for good behaviour. As parents we can see how aspects of social media are damaging, but we act them out in real life with rewards for behaviour that pleases us. Intrinsic motivation- doing something because we know it is the right thing to do or because we love doing it- is incredibly important for children’s sense of self and autonomy, and offering token rewards can get in the way of this. Take a look at our post about parenting without rules (and what we have instead!)
14. Encourage your child to explore their spiritual life. When children feel centred and calm, they are less likely to make rash decisions such as peer-pressured behaviour. Meditation, journalling, prayer and time in nature can all be great ways of helping your child be mindful and aware of their value as much more than a consumer or as someone to be manipulated into unwanted behaviour. You might like this post on 8 ways we help our kids maintain mindfulness.
I hope this post has been helpful – not all of the ideas will be applicable to everyone, but I hope there are one or two nuggets that give you inspiration on helping your child deal with peer pressure confidently and effectively.
Please SHARE this post using the social buttons with anyone who might be able to use some of these ideas!
If you do try out some of these ideas I would LOVE to know how it worked out so please do keep in touch.
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