Dealing with peer pressure & cliques

You’re a cool parent. You’d never, ever be so cliché as to say, “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge, too?”

But even the most innovative parents have been tempted to rhetorically question their kids’ equally unoriginal, “But all of my friends are [insert action here]; why can’t I?”  

The push to do as their peers do starts young, too. While in an indoor playground last week, I asked my four-year-old, “Please don’t scream anymore.” Her response? “But Kayla’s mom lets her scream.” I don’t even know Kayla’s mom, as our kids just met over that breakfast hour, but I still felt as if my kid was trying to use peer pressure against me!  Suddenly I wasn’t as awesome as Kayla’s mom!

Peer pressure is inevitable, and it’s something everyone faces multiple times, daily. Most of the time it’s benign or positive: the pressure to do well in school or in activities, the desire to follow rules, even to maintain good hygiene. But how do parents differentiate between the positive and negative influences?

We can’t be around our kids all the time, and some days we’re lucky to cross paths at all, it seems. Still, parents can keep an eye out for certain symptoms of harmful influences. A great place to start is school. Take the time to read the notices that come home with your children or come through the mail. If you’re not involved in a parent-teacher organization, it’s never too late to start. If the school has a blog, e-newsletter or forum, subscribe.  As much as you don’t want your child suffering from negative peer pressure, your school district wants to help stop such problems before they start. 

Pay attention to trends that may be affecting your young child or teenager’s school and friends. If there’s a rise in over-the-counter pharmaceutical abuse or teenage drinking, start conversations with not only the school and your child, but other students’ parents, as well. Even changes in school dress code or the lunch menu can be hints to what’s going on in your kids’ lives, so take full use of your parental rights to be nosy and ask questions that open dialogue, not close them.

What you don’t know—

Why do kids keep quiet, even when they don’t give in to peer pressure? One of the biggest reasons kids don’t let adults in their lives know what’s going on is because they don’t want to make the situation embarrassing or restricting. Consider all the responses you might get to the question, “Why didn’t you tell me this was going on?”

“I didn’t want to scare you.”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t let me hang out with him anymore.”
“I knew you’d make a big deal about it.”
“I didn’t want you to talk to him about it.”
“You treat people differently when I tell you what they’re really like.” 

By watching our responses to our kids’ admissions of feeling pressured and not following the disclosure with a knee-jerk reaction, we fortify the trust within our relationship. Instead of saying, “Well, why do you hang out with her?” which is a question that can close the conversation, open it up with questions like:

“Why do you think she does that?”
“How do you feel about it?”
“Have you guys every talked about that behavior?”
“How do you think I should handle the situation, as a parent?”

Keep in mind that your child or teen is exploring his world, his boundaries and having experiences that will shape his life forever. Don’t disregard their thoughts as being immature and worthless: even when the ideas are immature, they’re still building blocks toward maturity.

Talk things out, especially when you have to make hard decisions on why you don’t think your child should continue in a friendship. 

When it’s more than your average peer pressure—

Sometimes, peer pressure turns malicious. It’s embarrassing to be a victim of bullying, so they tend to be quiet about it. Keep a watchful eye from any of these symptoms your child is being bullied:

Loss of appetite or noticeable change in diet.
Complaining frequently of stomachaches, headaches or other physical ailments a doctor can’t explain.
Lethargy, moodiness, sadness.
Loss of interest in schoolwork or activities he usually enjoys.
Appearing anxious.
Disheveled clothing, cuts, scrapes and bruises.
Changing their usual route to and from places.
Changing their usual hang-out or play spots.
Frequently losing possessions.
Not taking “cool” possessions away from home anymore.
Refusing to talk about school or their extra-curricular activities.

Positive examples—
Set a positive example in your personal life. Not succumbing to peer pressure isn’t about doing the “different” thing just for the sake of being different, but find subtle ways to show you don’t have to go with the flow all the time. If you drink, consider passing on the wine at your next dinner party. When you meet up with friends, steer the conversation to uplifting or important matters, rather than the latest gossip.  And when you do discover the unpleasant things that have an affect on your child’s life, think a lot before you speak. 

Elizabeth Osborn is a freelance writer from Youngstown, OH.