Peer pressure

Is your child dealing with peer pressure?

When five-year-old Jenna got out her craft scissors and started hacking off her Barbie doll’s long tresses, her mother Dianne was appalled. After gently questioning her daughter as to why, Jenna knowingly rolled her eyes (as only a five-year-old can) and said long hair was “so yesterday”. Apparently — even to kindy kids — peer group trends matter.

Think peer pressure and you probably imagine surly teenagers doing things they know they shouldn’t because that’s what the cool kids do. But, according to new research, the desire to conform starts a whole lot earlier than that. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany conducted a study following 96 four-year-olds in two group activities involving reading books and turning lamps off and on, designed to test their desire to go with the group majority. The results overwhelmingly showed that children conform publicly in peer pressure situations, even when privately they have different opinions.

Not only does peer pressure begin at an early age, but these days it’s also happening on a larger and more dynamic scale, particularly with teens and tweens thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, Kik, Snapchat and Twitter. The effects of peer pressure can be more immediate, as kids tune into what’s hot and what’s not with a simple mouse click.

With the advent of social media, a new twist on peer pressure called FOMO (fear of missing out) has also emerged: a sense of anxiety that you aren’t doing the same as your peer groups or haven’t been invited to a specific social event! This underscores the angst that is at the very core of peer pressure.

The good, the bad & the ugly side of peer pressure

It seems that peer pressure is virtually intrinsic: it’s human nature to learn from others and they, in turn, learn from you. Unfortunately, peer pressure can influence children to do things they wouldn’t normally do because of their desire to be liked by others. Peer pressure can stifle individuality and free thinking, and be a catalyst for bullying behaviour. With the increase in online technology, research shows more than twice as many children have been bullied online than face to face. Of the 20,000 students aged 8–14 included in The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study, 30.5 per cent were bullied online and 14 per cent face to face.

However, peer pressure isn’t all bad. Warren Cann, psychologist and CEO of the parenting website, Raising Children Network, says it’s important to remember that peer pressure can be both negative and positive. “Peer groups have earned a bad rep,” he says. “It’s almost always suggested that peer groups exert negative pressure on children, but it’s important to keep it in perspective — peers or friends play a vital role in a child’s development.”

That is true. Peer pressure can be a powerful force to motivate children to step outside their comfort zone, play a sport they might not have thought of or join the drama club, for example, because that’s what their friends or other kids do. The right peer groups can also provide positive role models of how to be honest, kind and fair towards others. Looking at the big picture, peer groups help children to define who they are, make them feel valued and give them a sense of belonging.

Managing peer pressure

There is no denying that dealing with peer pressure as a whole can be challenging, though. Senior teacher and director of Powerful Parenting Australia, Davina Sharry, says peer pressure is really a double-edged sword. “It’s human nature to want to be included with others, but it’s also human nature to have your own voice and want to stand on your own two feet,” she says.

The problem with facing peer pressure is that kids naturally want to be liked and respected by their peer groups, which can cloud their judgement. It’s vital, then, to empower your child with the knowledge, tools and healthy attitude to deal with the negative aspects of peer pressure.

Not only does peer pressure begin at an early age, but these days it’s also happening on a larger and more dynamic scale, particularly with teens and tweens thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, Kik, Snapchat and Twitter.

Sharry tends to compare the attitude kids need to have when facing peer pressure to climbing a mountain, in that it might seem like an insurmountable task at first but it can be conquered by learning the skills needed. “Some children might need to work on their body language, or eye contact, the volume of their voice when saying no, or the words they need,” she says. “It can help if parents role-play and practise with them, and when they get to the top of that mountain they won’t feel vulnerable any more.”

Exposing the behaviour

As with most things in life, it comes down to choice. If a child is asked to do something they simply don’t want to do, they can agree to do what is asked of them, walk away from it or stand their ground and say no.

If a child learns to think things through and look ahead at the consequences of their actions, that can often add weight to their decision and they might just change their mind. Sharry says that if the child isn’t quite old enough to do this, parents can lend a helping hand.

“For example, I might say to one of the kids in class, ‘If you choose to sit beside James and you choose to follow him, then you’ll choose to see me at big lunch to talk about that.’ Choice is a powerful motivator,” she says.

Another thing to watch for is kids cleverly and cheerfully blaming others for their actions, under the guise of peer pressure. Sharry has witnessed some giggle-evoking examples. “One child hit another in the stomach and I asked him why. He said another boy was practising mind control, got into his brain and made him do it,” she says.

Although situations like these might seem funny, Sharry is quick to point out that, if children aren’t managing peer pressure, parents and schools need to step in and intervene. “When you expose negative peer pressure for what it is, it really does begin to look ugly,” she says.

Build positive relationships

One of the key things parents can do for their child to help resist negative peer pressure is to work to build a strong bond with their child. The more parents build resilient parent–child relationships, by keeping the lines of communication open, the more they’ll have a positive influence on their actions and behaviours.

No matter how busy your day-to-day demands are, Cann says it’s crucial to make time to talk to your child. “Find time to connect with them in meaningful ways — and always try to support them with empathy, warmth and understanding,” he says.

Walk the talk

If you are struggling to come to grips with your child’s attitude towards peer pressure, it could be worth doing a little soul searching to see how much you’re swayed by peer pressure. Are you the first in line to buy the latest techno gadget? Do you join the fray copying a hot new celebrity or popular style? Do you reach for your phone to check what’s trending on Twitter before you’ve had your morning coffee? (Be honest!)

Nurturing the spirit of individuality in your child sets them free to be their true self. Individuality is to be embraced and celebrated, and it all starts with your attitude and values. If you can walk away from peer pressure and dance to the beat of your own drum, chances are your child will learn that it’s OK to follow their own path — and honour their own inner wisdom.

The friendship factor

One of the biggest peer pressure influences is a child’s friendship or immediate peer group. Get to know your child’s friends and spend time with them, too, where possible. For young children, it’s a good idea to take note how your child’s friends relate to each other and to your child, and intervene only if your child is struggling to deal with peer-pressure situations. Allowing them to fight their own battles and stand on their own two feet, helps to build their self-esteem.

Have conversations with your child about friendship with others. Organise play dates with other children to expand your child’s social network so they learn to interact with different personality types.

For older children, if you have doubts about one of your child’s friends, don’t openly criticise them. Ask your child what they like about the child, what attracts them to the other person or why they think the other person makes a good friend.

Peer pressure can stifle individuality and free thinking, and be a catalyst for bullying behaviour.

Once again, says Sharry, it is a matter of choice. “I tell children that they either learn to be a leader or, if they’re going to be a follower, to stand behind a great leader,” she says.

As children get into their pre-teen and teenage years the dynamic shifts: children test their independence (and parental sanity) as they are exposed to an increasing variety of temptations. Cann suggests that, while parents can’t (and shouldn’t) prevent teens from developing a sense of autonomy, where possible it’s helpful to encourage children to interact with their peers in supervised settings, such as sporting groups and youth clubs. “There is definitely an association with unsupervised ‘street time’ that correlates with kids getting themselves into trouble,” he says.

Boosting self-esteem

One of the best ways parents can enable their child to honour their individuality is to build their self-esteem. Children who have a strong sense of self are less likely to give in to peer pressure. They learn to trust their own instincts and know their intrinsic value is not dependent on others’ opinions of them.

Look for opportunities to offer genuine praise, but don’t over-praise them or you run the risk of nurturing an overinflated ego. Kids need to be resilient, to learn to take risks and to weigh up facts and make decisions that might not have the outcome they’d hoped for; that’s part of life. Boosting your child’s self-esteem is about showing them love, respect and honesty.

Look for the laughter

You can find humour in just about any situation and peer pressure is no exception. In fact, Sharry says a little humour can go a long way to defuse a potentially uncomfortable situation when a child is saying no to peer pressure. She empowers her groups of primary-aged children with the following if they are being unfairly pressured.

Put your hand up in a stop sign (not in the other person’s face), then say, “Talk to the hand, the face ain’t home, please leave a message after the tone. … Beep.” You’ll probably find the kids involved dissolve into giggles. “A little bit of humour when someone is trying to pressure a child can’t hurt. It tells the other child you aren’t playing their game,” she says.

Beating the pack mentality & saying no

It’s just one little word but, for many kids, saying no to friends when asked to do something (particularly if the cool or popular kids are doing it) is about as appealing as spending Saturday cleaning out their sock drawer.

Here’s what to teach your kids to help them out:

How to say NO!

  1. Don’t rush. Take your time before making a decision. Count to 10, count your fingers and toes, so you aren’t immediately agreeing to what the group or your friend is asking you to do.
  2. Listen to what your tummy is telling you. Do you feel squeamish or uncomfortable? If you do, chances are you should be saying no.
  3. Think about what is being asked of you and the consequences if you say yes. Sure, it might seem pretty funny if you hide the new kid’s lunchbox, but you won’t be laughing if you get caught and spend your lunchtime picking up papers in the schoolyard.
  4. Choose your words. It’s OK to say, “No that’s a mean thing to do” or “I don’t want to do that.”
  5. Suggest something else. Why not say to your friend, “How about we ask the new kid to hang out with us at lunchtime? That might be fun.” What is the worst thing that could happen? You might just make a new friend.

Cause for concern

If there are unexplained changes in your child’s behaviour, avoidance of social situations, withdrawn or secretive behaviour or a drop in academic performance, it may be the result of negative peer actions, so get involved immediately. Talk to your school or counsellor for further advice.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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