Part of how kids learn about the world and themselves is through their social interactions with their peers. And, there are lots of benefits to peer support. Friends can offer feedback, advice and encouragement.
While peer pressure can have a positive influence, it can also have negative influences — as we know all too well. When kids or teens don't feel like they belong, it can lead to depression, anxiety and lower emotional health.
And the need to feel like they belong can lead to kids engaging in risky behaviors like smoking, drinking sexual activity or reckless stunts as they seek approval from their group. And despite parents' best efforts, their influence may not matter. Research has shown that a teen's peer group is a stronger factor in his or her academic success than family influence.
Making the situation even more challenging is that kids are more connected to their social peer group than any generation before. As a result, kids are more influenced by their peers' acceptance or judgment of them. Social media and the instant sharing of information across a wide spectrum of peers allows constant monitoring of one another. In past generations, kids would disconnect in the evening and on weekends and reconnect with their family values and themselves. Now there is more pressure to follow the pack and stay within the social rules of one's friend group.
Given the significant role peers play within children's lives, it's critical to help kids learn how to deal with the pressure. And while that work really needs to begin in preschool, it's never too late to help your kids learn how to manage the relationships in their lives.
Keep the lines of communication open with your kids. Family meals can help. It's dedicated time to sit down, phones are put away, and hear about everyone's day. Some kids might wait until the end of the day, like around bedtime, to talk about something that's bothering them. Parents of teens have found that sometimes a car ride is the place where issues can get talked about. Try to find the time that your child seems most open to sharing and create the opportunity to talk.
When you do hear about situations that cause you concern, or that your child is struggling with, resist the urge to tell kids how to react. Instead, help them brainstorm possible responses. You can even role-play. Developing a script can help kids know how to respond when peer pressure situations come up.
It's also important to note that kids may not even be aware of the way that peer pressure affects their choices. They might feel the need to buy expensive things, go on vacations or wear certain brands of clothing. Trying to fit in can come at a cost, literally. It can be tricky, but trying to talk about why kids want or feel they need certain things can help create awareness about the pressure to fit in that we all sometimes feel.
Compare progress, not people
When we compare ourselves with others, there is always someone who is doing better or has more/better things. Comparing ourselves against others can leave us feeling inadequate and prone to taking actions just to fit in. Teens are especially pulled between their desire to be accepted by the group and to stand out as an individual.
One way to help is by encouraging kids to compare themselves today to where they were in the past or where they want to be in the future. This strengthens kids' sense of self as they can see their own progress, and it helps them be less vulnerable to feeling inadequate or like they're not keeping up with others.
Trust your body
Help kids learn about the mind-body connection. Learning to listen to their bodies can help them navigate their world when they learn to recognize the signals.
You could practice this with your kids. Ask them to think about two options, one a risky choice — going to a party where kids will be drinking, for example — and the other a better choice — going out with close friends to a movie. As they think about each option, does their body react? Does their stomach tense up, or do they have a "bad feeling?"
When a situation, choice or even person isn't in their best interest, their heart might beat faster, stomach may have butterflies, they might tense up, they may feel sick or shaky, or their thoughts might race or get cloudy. Help them learn to listen to those cues.
Learn how to assess the situation
Listening to the cues our bodies give us means having to pause before making a decision in order to assess the situation. And kids need to learn how to do that.
They can take a breath and think about the situation and potential consequence. You can coach them on this in advance — ask what kinds of situations are they most likely to encounter. When they do, what questions can they ask themselves — questions like, "Will someone get hurt?" , "Will my family get angry?" and "What bad things might happen?"
Also, coach them in anticipating other kids' reactions. For example, brainstorm how to respond when other kids might pressure them by saying "Everyone is doing this," "I dare you," or "No one will find out."
Teach them the power of a simple "no," including how to feel comfortable saying it and how to use it. Role play situations when they might feel pressure to do something they aren't comfortable doing. When they feel comfortable saying no, they will be better able to respond in the moment. When one person speaks out, it can give others the courage to do the same.
If they don't feel they can say no, together think of ways they can respond. They can make an excuse, suggest an alternative activity or even elicit a friend to support them in those difficult moments. They could find that friends are actually relieved to have a way to remove themselves from a situation.
Another thing to consider is a code word or phrase that a child can use to have a parent come and get him or her at any time, no questions asked. Something like, "I have a headache" or "I forgot to walk the dog" and role play with kids how to create the space they need to make the call. "My parents will kill me if I don't check in," or something similar — even if it's not entirely true — will help your child create the needed space to make the call. Or, if he or she has a phone, it could just be a texted code word that only you understand.
But remember, if you find out that your child was on the verge of doing something incredibly risky, try to hold off on any lectures (kids might be less likely to use the code word in the future). Instead, come back to the conversation at a later time when you can talk calmly about the situation.
Choose friends wisely
The feeling of belonging is a powerful one, but we can make sure that those we're spending time with support what's truly in our best interests. Encourage your kids to hang out with people who help make them a better person and lead them towards their best life.
And if someone doesn't like them, trying to be someone they're not isn't going to make a difference. Instead, this can be an opportunity to strengthen your kids' approval, acceptance and appreciation for themselves. It's hard work, and it's ongoing — even adults struggle. But, setting a foundation from the beginning can help kids learn skills for a healthy lifetime.