by Malia Jacobson
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.
In the face of this 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 a healthy sense of self that keeps peer influence at bay.
PRESCHOOL YEARS 3-5 = ESTEEM TEAM
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,” says certified parenting and family educator and North Carolina Parenting Education Network board member Virginia Rodillas, M.S., of Raleigh, North Carolina. 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, 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 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.
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12 = SPEAK UP
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. Ask 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 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,” says Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D., psychology professor at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts. 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 Jacobson 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”.