How to help your child manage peer pressure

You happily drop your nine year old off at a party. All seems good and positively encouraging, even though he doesn’t usually get birthday invites.

However, after the party, tears erupt and he screams that he hates you, for buying him such a ‘dumb shirt’. A little investigation finally reveals that the other boys laughed at his shirt, as they all wore the same, latest brand names.

This is the start of your battle in helping your vulnerable child to resist peer pressure.

Peer pressure begins early

It was often asserted that peer pressure doesn’t begin until our kids hit teenage years. However, this is misleading, as peer pressure really begins in early primary school, from about eight years of age.

At this stage, kids develop more abstract, fluid and adaptive thinking skills. In simpler terms, the world isn’t so concrete or ‘black and white’ anymore.

They can now understand that odd, seemingly separate factors fit together to create something different, such as certain colours and the right words on a t-shirt are either dorky or a new fashion. So kids now become aware and get what is ‘cool’, including cool clothes, cool items, and cool language.

In terms of play and peer pressure, kids become more complex or sophisticated at this age. At age six, little Sally might simply tell little Amy that she doesn’t like her and that she is not her friend anymore.

By age eight, bigger Sally will whisper to her other friend something about Amy. Sally knows that this message will eventually be conveyed to Amy, in another form, but it will still see Amy excluded or judged unfairly.

Similarly, little boys might now laugh and point at the one boy who wears a different footy jumper from their favourite team, perhaps on ‘freedom from uniform day’, at school. They won’t need to say anything, actions and non verbal communication can now be just as strong as words, among eight and nine year olds.

Similarly, the boys might now establish a silent rule that anyone wearing that jumper won’t be invited to the footy game on the school oval at lunchtime. The pressure from peers to fit in and to conform is growing markedly, even at this tender age. It will only become more intense by teenager years.

Peer pressure can take many forms

Peer pressure in primary years can take many different forms. It may be:

  • forcing a girl to have a boyfriend, when she really isn’t ready yet
  • laughing at kids who don’t play with the ‘right’ toys
  • blatantly handing out party invites to only the cool people in the group.

It is also the beginning of body awareness, such that there is peer pressure to lose weight or to partake in the ‘right’ activity, such as a new fitness craze.

Similarly, tweens are increasingly subjected to peer pressure, to conform to certain clothing or actions, that sensible parents rightly deem is simply not appropriate for a primary school-aged child.

It is also the beginning of social ostracism for wearing the wrong brand name, for not agreeing to complete ‘dares’ in the group, or not having the latest, best gadget. Sadly, we do now have primary school kids putting pressure on each other as to who has the coolest mobile phone, laptop, or music device.

Similarly, primary-aged peer pressure often involves pressuring mates to do things that they are uncomfortable with, not only doing ‘dares’, but also pressuring social interactions. This might take the form of pressuring friends to be mean to other kids, in order to stay in favour themselves.

Parents typically also begin to feel the side effects of peer pressure, often in protests such as, ‘…but mum, everyone is doing it…’ or ‘…that’s unfair dad, everyone else has one…’ Of course, this is a gross exaggeration, but it doesn’t mean kids don’t reflect the peer pressure that they are now feeling and experiencing onto their parents.

The impact of peer pressure

Peer pressure impacts on kids greatly, at such a vulnerable, formative stage of life. A child who is ostracised from play or social events can become sad, irritable, and even depressed.

A child who is lacking in self-esteem already can become much more at risk of acting out, simply to fit in, through fear of being rejected or disliked. This can lead to a greater risk of smoking, abusing alcohol or other substances, stealing or truanting, when that child reaches adolescence.

At primary age, it may be demonstrated as a child withdrawing, wanting to avoid school, becoming more irritable, becoming suddenly aggressive when friends are discussed, or displaying odd anxiety. It can also be reflected in an increasing obsession with needing to check social media, where great amounts of peer pressure are exerted.

Not all peer pressure is negative. Peers can encourage each other to complete caring or positive acts, such as good peer pressure can lead to a group of peers standing up to a bully, to protect another child.

Similarly, peer pressure can encourage a child to join a sporting team or activity that a shy or reluctant child might be too frightened to undertake on his own. There are other good forms of positive peer pressure, so let’s not aim to dissuade all peer pressure.

Helping kids resist peer pressure

Helping kids to resist or manage peer pressure begins at home. There is no greater prevention than a child receiving unconditional love, genuine regard, and positive recognition at home.

A child who knows that they are unconditionally loved and accepted at home and with loved ones will feel more confident in resisting peer pressures, as well as often choosing parents’ values over peers.

Similarly, avoiding negative labels and criticisms helps prevent vulnerability to peer pressure. A child who is criticised or judged at home will naturally seek more approval and recognition from peers or others, as well as being more susceptible to fears of being rejected by peers.

Generally helping to build self-esteem helps in dealing with peer pressure, but not engaging in ‘over the top’, false praise. It can be helpful to keep a record of genuine achievements, such as in a scrap book.

Genuine praise helps to build self-esteem, particularly when we tell our kids that other adults have shown high regard for them. A child who feels well regarded by adults, such as parents, grandparents, teachers, sporting coaches, etc. is more likely to want to avoid displeasing those adults, and so more capable of resisting peer pressure.

Positive coaching in how to deal with peer pressure is often needed by kids in primary years. It is not simply a matter of learning to say ‘No’, but ensuring that they present as being confident, use the ‘right’ tone of voice, show self assured body language, and an assertive nature.

This often means role playing potential events at home, or asking a professional to help in social skills coaching, if your child is faltering with peer pressure. Also, kids often need help in developing a few different responses, or cool statements, as excuses they can use to escape peer pressure.

Keeping relaxed, positive communication channels open with your child is also very important. If we can manage regular friendly chats, positive exchanges and humorous interchanges with our kids, at opportune times, it’s more likely they will open up when feeling the burden of peer pressure. Also, being able to openly discuss feelings with your child helps your child to discuss their own feelings, if subjected to negative peer pressure.

Self disclosing your experiences with peer pressure can also help. Primary aged kids are often bewildered when first confronted by peer pressure. They often believe no one knows what they are going through.

However, if we can tell them about when we have been subjected to peer pressure and how we successfully handled it—either as a child or at work—our child will develop more confidence. We can further empathise by admitting that we also found it very hard to stand up to peer pressure, but felt better in the long term.

Finally, if your child makes any attempts at resisting peer pressure, be very warm, genuine and positive in giving praise and regard. Remind your child that you are very proud of him or her for being brave and trying to stand up to peer pressure.

If we remember that all kids are normal and therefore might falter at some time, we’re less likely to become upset if a problem occurs. We’re better able to focus on what we can all do better next time, as a team, to resist peer pressure.

Peer pressure is an extremely common challenge for all kids. However, with good preparation, self-esteem building, and positive support, our kids should be able to gradually develop the strength and skills to manage any negative peer pressure.

Article written by Ian Wallace, Consultant Psychologist.