An age-by-age guide to positive peer interactions
Once considered a hallmark of high school, peer pressure is showing up earlier and earlier. Case in point: Recent research found that children can recognize group dynamics and feel pressured by peers as early as age 9. 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.
In the face of this new peer pressure, parents can intervene early and often to be sure that kids develop a strong sense of self. Here’s how to foster that healthy sense of self that keeps peer influence at bay.
Preschool Years (3-5)
Want to give your young child a leg up to help him 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. But self-esteem doesn’t stem from empty praise or hollow ego boosts. Instead, help your child learn to like who he is. Allowing a young child to self-select clothing, accessories and bedroom décor from a young age helps him learn to enjoy expressing his own personality. Of course, offering these kinds of choices to a preschooler may be inconvenient at first, especially for parents who are used to holding the reins. And yes, allowing a tot to don self-selected clothes admittedly takes longer than just picking out his duds yourself. But the payoff is a child who knows who he is—and will be more able to stay true to himself in the face of peer pressure.
Parents can intervene early and often to be sure that kids develop a strong sense of self.
Elementary Years (6-12)
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. Through this open and safe communication, children can develop a sense of assertiveness and ability to speak their own minds. 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, her choices and her values gives you valuable insights and prompts your child to think more critically about whether her peers are worthy of imitation.
Teen Years (13-18)
Above the Influence
Sure, negative peer pressure may peak in high school: Some 90 percent 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. 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 also can deter a teen from trying drugs, engaging in risky behaviors or making other poor decisions. Positive peer pressure motivates us to make good decisions, healthy changes and can help us reach our goals. And it’s clear to see 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.