Dear Dr. Shore,
My son is about to enter middle school, and I'm less worried about the academic pressure than the peer pressure. What can I do to help him avoid succumbing to that pressure?
Your concern is well founded. Coping with peer pressure is one of the toughest parts of growing up. Those pressures are most intense during a child's middle- and high-school years. Being accepted by their peers is of paramount concern for students during these years as they strive to look, talk, and act like their classmates.
In their desire to gain peer approval, teenagers typically feel pressure to engage in the same activities as their peers. Sometimes, they will succumb to that pressure against their better judgment. Children with low self-esteem are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, and might lose their perspective about right and wrong. On the other hand, children with nurturing parents are more likely to resist peer-group values that differ from their family's values. Those children are better able to resist negative peer pressures.
Here are a few ways that you can help your child deal with those pressures:
Promote your child's self-esteem. Children who are confident and have positive self-worth are more likely to become friends with children who are good role models. Find opportunities to boost your child's self-esteem and help him enjoy success by involving him in activities that capitalize on his strengths and interests.
Avoid overreacting to what your child says. Your child might tell you things that make your jaw drop. If you overreact, you will discourage him from talking with you about those issues again. At the same time, use those teachable moments to introduce some cautions without moralizing or lecturing. Your son might seem to dismiss what youre saying, but he will hear you.
Choose your battles carefully. Don't make an issue out of your child wanting to wear the same clothes as his friends or adopt a trendy hairstyle. Take a stand on high-risk peer behavior. Not sweating the small stuff will enable you to be more effective when you challenge him on the larger issues.
Help your child develop good decision-making skills. If he can learn to trust his own instincts when making decisions, your son will be less likely to let others make decisions for him. Encourage him to think through the possible consequences of the decisions hes facing.
Help your child develop responses to peers. Help him figure out what to say to peers who are pressuring him to participate in high-risk activities. Suggest responses that are short and simple and that hes comfortable saying. If hes is receptive, role-play with him or encourage him to practice in front of a mirror.
Get to know your child's friends. Make a point of encouraging your child to invite his friends to your home. Spend some time with them so you can gauge whether they are positive influences.