Should I be nervous about peer influence?

Parents worry about the effect of peer pressure on their child, especially once she turns thirteen. They hope she’ll be strong enough to reject what she knows is wrong. But they understand from their own childhoods that resisting peer pressure is difficult. They also remember how they were turned off by standard warnings and lectures: “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Peer influence is an inevitable part of pre- and early adolescence. Kids look to each other when choosing clothes, hairstyles, or music. They behave the way friends do because that makes them feel part of a group. Peer influence often can be positive. Kids suggest good books, introduce friends to new interests, and encourage each other to study, take on neighborhood jobs, or be more polite. One twelve-year-old told his friend, “You could be nicer when you ask your mom to do things for you.”

Of course, there’s also a negative side to peer influence. A susceptible child may be swayed to join a rough crowd or do something dangerous, thoughtless, or illegal: intimidate younger children, shoplift, get into fights, drink, smoke, or try drugs.

Kids who are most vulnerable to peer pressure are those who don’t feel close to their parents or who don’t receive firm, positive direction from them. A child may be largely ignored at home or forced to follow overly strict rules. As a result, she may look to friends for the attention and guidance she lacks at home. She also may be insecure. She follows her peers’ bad suggestions to gain a sense of identity and feel accepted.

Most kids these ages, however, aren’t led into deep trouble by peers. A child chooses friends who are like her. And ten- to thirteen-year-olds usually can’t be persuaded to violate their basic family values. They can be talked into mischief, though, so parents have to stay alert. One twelve-year-old snuck out of a school dance, violating the rules. He told his parents, “Scott and John told me to.” He wasn’t thinking about the rules, the worry he caused, or the potential danger. He only considered the thrill of the moment and the fun of being with his friends.

Your child will be less affected by negative peer pressure if she has you are with a good self-image and a strong connection to family. The more involved her, the more she’ll want to please you. And if her identity is relatively secure, she won’t be so dependent on the approval of her friends.

Set limits on her behavior so she’ll know what you expect and what the consequences will be if she doesn’t follow the rules. If you find out after the fact that she did something you disapprove discipline her? Then keep a closer eye on her and her friends.

Discuss peer pressure with her. Let her know you expect her to stand up to the group at times, even though you realize how difficult that can be. Try role-playing: “What would you do if a friend stole a necklace while you were shopping together?” “If everyone was picking on someone at school how would you act?” Let her know that being independent won’t mean the end of her social life.

Encourage her to share her worries and talk about her relationships with friends. Peer pressure and risky behavior will be increasing concerns as your child gets older, and you need to anticipate the inevitable problems. As she moves through adolescence, she’ll need your guidance, watchfulness, and support if she’s going to resist the pressure to “go along.”

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