The “Cool Kids”: How to Help Your Child or Teen Deal with Peer Pressure, Exclusion and Cliques

 

When we think of peer  pressure, we typically have a picture in our minds of  a kid handing your child  a cigarette, a joint, or a beer and saying something  like, “Come on, just try  it.” But at times peer pressure can be felt without a  single word being spoken, like when a clique excludes others or rolls their eyes  at the (in their opinion) “uncool” kids who walk by.

“It’s  most helpful to focus on the behavior of your child’s friends, or more  importantly, your child’s behavior when she is with these friends.”

 

Related:Teach your child the most important skills that will help him now and  later in life.

Here  are five of the top peer pressure situations, with ways you  can help  your child or teen handle them:

1. Drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and  partying. The average age American kids take their first drink is 11 for  boys and 13 for girls. Drugs  are rampant in our communities today—not just  marijuana, but also bath salts, meth,  K2 (aka “spice” or synthetic marijuana),  and prescription medications.  This is not to say all kids will follow this  pattern of alcohol use or get into  drugs, but chances are, your child will come  into contact with another kid who  has knowledge of these things and may even  be using one or more. As a  parent, being involved and communicating with  your child about drugs and alcohol is of vital  importance.

What you can do: As a school counselor, I always say  that  you really can’t start talking with your children about these things too  early.  It’s important that you discuss your rules and values pertaining to  drugs,  alcohol, and tobacco, but also help him come up with several options to  escape  the situation if he’s being pressured to try something. For example, you  might  role play with your middle schooler and teach him to say a strong and  direct “No.” He could also suggest a different activity, change the  subject, or leave  the situation by walking away.

I’ve also heard a lot of parents talking  about the “no-questions-asked” pick-up. That’s when you tell your child that if  he calls you to leave a party  or a bad situation, you will go and get him with  no consequences and no  questions asked. This is something that each parent and  family has to decide if  it’s right for them. If this works for your family, it  can be very  effective.

Related: How  to give your ODD child or teen “fail proof” consequences.

2. My Child’s Personality is  Changing—for the Worse! Kids  who hang out together tend to  adopt the same types of attitudes, likes,  dislikes, and values—and in fact,  research has shown that people tend to mimic  the behavior of others in order to  fit in into a group. This can be distressing  if your formerly sweet kid is  rolling her eyes at you and responding with, “Whatevs” to everything you say.  If she’s becoming defiant, aggressive or  disrespectful, you’ll want to address this behavior and nip it in the bud   before it continues to escalate.

An important thing to note here is that teens and tweens start to become more  peer-focused and less family-focused. They want to spend more time with their   friends and might confide in them more often than family. Also, adolescence is   where most of the task of “individuation” really takes place: this is the   process of coming to understand and know oneself as your own person. This means   kids start to want more choices, more freedom—and at times more privacy and   distance from their family. Peers become the center of their universe, and with   their natural desire for a sense of belonging, teens can be extremely   susceptible to peer pressure. Another factor that makes them susceptible is the   still-developing teen brain, which has not yet become a master of  decision-making  and self-management! This means that they don’t always have the  thinking skills  and self-control skills it takes to resist peer pressure.

Related: My Child has “Toxic” Friends.

What you can do: When your child’s behavior is  changing as  a result of spending time with a new group of friends, start by  having a  conversation about it with her in a moment when you are both calm. Know   beforehand that this is an issue ripe for power struggles. Your child identifies  with these kids she’s hanging out with in some way—maybe they have something in  common that drew them together, or she feels accepted in this group. If your   child feels like you are attacking her friends, she will likely get defensive   and dig in her heels—and want to be with them all the more. It’s most helpful   to focus on the behavior of your  child’s friends, or more importantly, your  child’s behavior when she is with these friends. You might say  something  like, “I’ve noticed that you talk back to me a lot since you started  hanging  out with Courtney. Why do you think that is?” This conversation should  be  focused on your rules and values, and should reiterate your expectations for  behavior. Rather than trying to forbid your child’s friendship, you might   decide to put some parameters on it if repeated problem-solving discussions   don’t help. For example, you might say that she can only see Courtney outside   of school once a week, or that she can’t go to Courtney’s house until her   behavior improves, but Courtney can come over to your house so you can get to   know her better.

Note: If your child begins to exhibit behavior changes that you find  worrisome or concerning, it may be helpful to speak with your child’s doctor or  another professional about your concerns to rule out any underlying issues that  may be affecting your child’s behavior.

3. My Child is Being Excluded. It’s so painful for kids when  they’re excluded from something, whether it’s an event like a birthday party,   or a clique or group at school. Many times there isn’t a clear reason why this   happens; it just seems like out of the blue, your child is left out and feeling   miserable.

It’s  important to know that at some point or another, almost all kids feel  the pain  of being excluded. This could be a result of direct exclusion (another  child  specifically telling them they aren’t welcome), shifting loyalties among   friends, or “fifth wheel” problems. If you’re the parent of a teen, you’ve   probably already seen that adolescent friendships can shift and change   dramatically in seemingly short periods of time: that girl your daughter used   to hang out with all the time might start hanging out with another girl. Even   in a group with just two other kids, a third can easily feel “lost in the   crowd.”

Related:  Anxiety is contagious—and so is Calm. How to coach your child without stepping  in to fix it for her.

What you can do: Try to pinpoint which of  these situations  is leading to your child’s loneliness and then talk with him  or her about some  ways to solve the problem. Don’t blame your child for why  this is happening,  because that won’t be helpful. Often there is no rhyme or reason for why your  child is being left out or ostracized. Put on your “coaching hat” and  help your  child to come up with some strategies to improve the situation. For  example, if  she’s going to hang out with two other girls and this leaves her  feeling left  out, perhaps she could invite a fourth so that she will have her  own buddy. If  her problems center around the kids at school, try to get her  involved in a  group where she can make friends from other towns who share her  interests—and  where she can see firsthand that there is a life outside of  school. If she is  socially awkward or you notice her doing things that puts  others off, (like  always needing to get her way or being too clingy) you can  coach her on ways to  behave socially without making her feel like there’s  something wrong with her.  (More on this next.)

4. When Your Child is Socially Awkward. Sometimes  kids feel  like they don’t fit in consistently and repeatedly. If this is the  case, it  might help to ask yourself if your child is lacking any vital social  skills and  if perhaps this is the reason that other kids are not responding  positively to  him. It’s important to note that it’s normal to feel left out or  lonely once in  a while, but you can help your child realize he has some control  over  his own behavior and responses.

What you can do: In this case, it’s helpful to talk  to your  child about social cues. You can do this when you’re watching TV or out  at a  restaurant. Ask your child how he thinks the waitress is feeling, or what  they  think it might mean if a character in a movie has his arms crossed.   Role-playing is something else that could also help—teach your child some   specific skills like introducing himself and act it out. Many parents also come   up with a cueing system that helps their kids learn how to interact socially.   Let’s say your child with ADHD is constantly monopolizing the conversation, and   talking a mile a minute. Together, come up with a signal you can give him   (touching your chin with your forefinger, for example) to let him know he needs   to let someone else have a turn. It might also help to talk to your child’s   teachers or school counselors for some support and additional ideas to   specifically help your child. (Don’t feel shy about reaching out—at my school,   I help parents with this issue all the time.)

5. Last word: Put the Focus on Your  Child’s Strengths

It’s  important to help your child focus on his or her strengths and what  they can control. Emphasize your child’s  positive internal qualities  and teach them some positive self-talk they can use  when they are feeling  pressured. For example, instead of thinking, “Why can’t I  just be different?” They could say to themselves, “Everyone is different. I  like who I am.”

Pressure  is one of those stressors that we all experience at every stage of  life. It can  actually be motivating—it can help us excel at work and earn  promotions, and it  can help our kids ace that final exam. It can be the thing  that gets your child  to try a new sport, join a new club, do better in school,  or stops them from  doing something stupid.

But  pressure can also be overwhelming and can sometimes  lead us down the wrong  path. Start talking to your kids about positive coping  skills and strategies to  escape high pressure situations when they are young so  that they can manage the  pressure they will encounter not only in adolescence,  but throughout life as  well.

 

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