Once considered a hallmark of high school, peer pressure is showing up earlier and earlier. Case in point: recent research from the University of Maryland found that children can recognize group dynamics and feel pressured by peers as early as age nine. Widespread smartphone and social media use by children at earlier ages (the average age for a first smartphone is 11) means that social pressure moves at a faster pace and can be harder for parents to detect.
Preschool Years: Three to Five
Want to give your young child a leg up to help them resist peer pressure in later years? Build self-esteem now. “High self-esteem can serve as a protective factor when dealing with negative peer pressure,” says certified parenting and family educator and Parenting Education Network board member Virginia Rodillas, M.S. But self-esteem doesn’t stem from empty praise or hollow ego-boosts. Instead, help your child learn to like who they are. Allowing a young child to self-select clothing, accessories and bedroom décor from a young age helps them learn to enjoy expressing their own personality, says Vicki Hoefle, mom of five and author of Duct Tape Parenting. Of course, offering these kinds of choices to a preschooler may be inconvenient at first, especially for parents who are used to holding the reigns. And, yes, allowing a tot to don self-selected clothes admittedly takes longer than just picking out their clothes yourself. But the payoff is a child who knows who they are - and will be more able to stay true to themself in the face of peer pressure.
Elementary Years: Six to 12
Peers - and peer influences - take on a bigger role during elementary school. Establishing open lines of communication with your grade-schooler provides an outlet for questions, worries and concerns that spring up and lays the foundation for a strong bond in years to come. “Children should feel comfortable approaching their parents and talking about any difficulties they face," says Rodillas. “Through this open and safe communication, children can develop a sense of assertiveness and ability to speak their own mind.” An ice-cream date, a shopping trip, even a car ride can be a springboard for meaningful conversation. Steer clear of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. Instead, dig deeper with inquiries like, “Who’s your best friend right now?” When you notice a peer’s influence taking hold, take note. Querying your child in a friendly, casual way about the friend’s appeal, the friend’s choices and the friend’s values gives you valuable insights and prompts your child to think more critically about whether your child’s peers are worthy of imitation.
Teen Years: 13 to 18
Above the influence
Sure, negative peer pressure may peak in high school: some 90 per cent of teens admit to being influenced by friends and classmates. “We know from research that the likelihood of succumbing to peer pressure peaks around ninth grade,” says Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D., psychology professor at Clark University. But peer pressure isn’t all bad. So-called ‘positive’ peer pressure can motivate teens to exercise, volunteer and work harder at school.
This type of peer pressure can deter a teen from trying drugs, engaging in risky behaviors or making other poor decisions, says Rodillas. “Positive peer pressure motivates us to make good decisions, healthy changes and can help us reach our goals.” And it’s hard to argue that teammates or study partners can motivate a teen in ways a parent can’t. Help your teen harness the power of positive peer pressure by encouraging participation in athletics, community service organizations and study groups.
Malia is a nationally published health and parenting journalist, and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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