Peer pressure is a constant force in a child’s life. From mundane and seemingly inconsequential scenarios like the pressure to fit in by wearing a local team’s jersey to more serious situations that involve rule-breaking or poor life decisions, peer pressure is everywhere. Helping children establish enough self-confidence to make sound decisions regardless of what others are compelling them to do is a critical component of their social development.
“The most important thing about raising confident children is giving them a voice,” says Lauren Starnes, Ed.D., Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer at The Goddard School. “The reason why that's really important is that peer pressure, bullying, and social hierarchy dynamics are really about power. If a child has the capacity and the confidence to speak up, say how they are feeling, ask for help, and self-advocate, it's much easier to counteract power plays.”
Here are three traits Starnes says parents do to help their children stand up for themselves and resist peer pressure.
1. They Teach Emotional Intelligence
Helping kids build emotional intelligence should happen early and constantly. The ability for a child to identify their emotions and pick up on cues about what other people might be feeling is a multifaceted aspect of development referred to as theory of mind. Although young kids can have difficulty intuitively understanding others’ perspectives, interactive storytelling can enrich their development.
“Egocentric thought is very natural for young children,” Starnes says. “So if we can use a storybook to give context, it gives children a way to begin to understand the perspective of another through a story that's somewhat removed. But then it's important that we then take that storyline and help the child see where there is a connection to their own life and experiences.”
For example, the classic children’s book Corduroy includes multiple characters who feel a range of emotions. As they read through the book, parents can ask how characters feel in different situations and how their child would feel if they faced something similar. How does Corduroy feel when he realizes he’s missing a button on his overalls and thus is less likely to get purchased? How does the little girl respond when her mom won’t let her buy Corduroy, and how does Corduroy feel when she returns for him the next day?
When standing up to peer pressure, emotional intelligence is a multifaceted tool. A child who can identify that they feel scared, sad, or lonely when a peer is attempting to influence them has an opportunity to regain their balance and not give in to pressure simply to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling.
In a more direct approach, Starnes suggests parents teach kids how to pick up on physiological emotional cues. “For example, when a toddler is having a tantrum, take the time to gently point out that their fists are clenched and their face is red, and note that it looks like they feel frustrated,” she says. “Give them the words to begin to express their internal emotions because the capacity to verbalize emotions in a meaningful way can further allow the child to self-advocate in the midst of a pressured or bullying social dynamic.”
2. They Model Self-Advocacy
Once a child can identify that they want to stand up for themselves, they have to put that desire into action. Finding a graceful exit or quickly fleeing the situation is sometimes the best course of action, but flight can’t be the only mode of engagement. Some circumstances call for self-advocacy through clear communication and confident body language.
Parents should model self-advocacy for their kids when appropriate, but Starnes highlights the importance of building context around the practice. “Often, as adults, we just do. We assume that children are watching us, and they are. But we can create additional depth by actually taking the time to explain to the child how we are self-advocating,” she says.
She gives the example of a parent talking through making a vacation request at work, even though it’s not an interaction that kids are likely to see firsthand. “It also could be as simple as explaining that we want to take a vacation to visit grandma, so I'm going to have to ask my boss at work if I can have days away because it's important that we go on vacation as a family. It might feel awkward at first, but it's helping the child begin to see how we as adults are problem-solving through everyday interactions.”
Say a child is being pressured by a friend to steal a pen off the teacher’s desk. Their friend has been persistent, asking them three times and calling them a “chicken” for refusing to pull off the heist. Combining emotional intelligence with self-advocacy might allow the pressured child to respond like this: “I’m angry that you’re trying to get me to do something that could get me in trouble and starting to be mean about it. I’m not going to steal the pen, so please don’t ask again.”
3. They Make Their Kids Feel Like They Can Ask For Help
Even the most self-confident kid may encounter peer pressure they can’t handle on their own. Or they might witness a friend who is less confident being pushed beyond their ability to withstand pressure, at which point it’s time to pull in an adult who can help diffuse the situation. “Asking for help is a component of self-advocacy — realizing the point at which I can't help myself, and I need someone else to help me,” Starnes says.
Threats to physical safety are an ironclad sign that adult intervention is needed. But kids should also know that persistent pressure over a period of time or pressure to do something particularly dangerous are also occasions to call in adult reinforcements. Starnes emphasizes the importance of impressing upon kids that trusted adults are available and willing to help ahead of time.
“Be clear with kids. For example, say, ‘I want you to come find me, and I want you to talk to me about it. Let me help you.’ Make sure that the child sees that parents and other trusted adults are options in their toolbox when they're unable to define a resolution themselves,” she says.
It’s a reality that can be impressed on younger kids in low-leverage situations before they are inundated with the pressures they’ll face as adolescents and teenagers. Being responsive when kids ask for help reinforces that adults are reliable. However, it’s important to use those opportunities to assist kids when appropriate instead of just bailing them out.
When a child asks for help getting a snack they can’t reach, giving them two minutes of full attention to problem-solve answers together reinforces that you are responsive to their needs while empowering them to find independent solutions. And in instances in which the snack is genuinely so high that it would be dangerous for them to reach for it on their own, praising the child for staying safe by asking for help is an excellent habit to reinforce positively.
Admittedly, raising a kid with the confidence to stand up to peer pressure is a long game that requires intentionality and time. But fortunately, all of these skills are valuable in other aspects of life, and effort invested on the front end can pay huge dividends as kids grow up.
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