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How To Inoculate Children Against Peer Pressure

What parents can do to promote self-confidence in their children

Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography

When I was in first grade, I vividly recall my father once saying to me, "Just because your friends think something is a good idea doesn't mean it is. You should always do what you think." I don't remember what prompted him to say this, but not one day later I found myself saying the same thing to my best friend and feeling as I said it not only that it was a good idea to think for myself but also that it was my good idea.

As I grew older, whenever my peers wanted to do something I thought was foolish, I found I had little trouble resisting the urge to join them. I even began to feel a perverse sense of pleasure in standing against them. As a result, I avoided indulging in numerous deleterious behaviors as I grew up: drinking, smoking, stealing, and so on. Exactly why my father's advice had this effect on me, however, isn't entirely clear to me to this day. Was it the advice itself, the way I was built, or both? I can't say for certain, but research is beginning to uncover some clues about things we can do as parents that may actually help our children resist social pressure.

Research suggests children are most vulnerable to peer pressure between the ages of 10 and 14. After that, resistance to peer pressure increases linearly until the age of 18. After that, it seems to hold steady. This pattern seems to hold true for both girls and boys and across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. One reason for it may be that from the ages of 10 to 14, children are differentiating themselves from their parents and in place of dependence on their parents are substituting dependence on their friends. Research also suggests that the "wiring" in the brains of early adolescents inclines them toward increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, which predisposes them to riskier behaviors.

But some adolescents are clearly more able to resist peer pressure than others. What predicts this? According to a recent study, teens who are able to express their own views with their mothers resist peer pressure the best. That is, the teens who have learned to argue well with their mothers (defined in the study as trying to persuade their mothers with reasoned arguments rather than with pressure, whining, or insults) were the best at standing up to peer influences to use drugs or alcohol. In other words and not surprisingly, teens with the greatest sense of autonomy and self-confidence were the most resistant to peer pressure.

How can parents help children to feel a strong sense of autonomy and self-confidence? Though what goes in to making a person feel autonomous and self-confident is complex, one thing parents can do that seems to help is encourage their children to express their feelings with language. For one thing, children who feel their ideas and feelings matter to their parents, who feel confident expressing their feelings, come to value their feelings. Further, when children are allowed to express their feelings it seems to help them get over them. Sometimes this is because children (not to mention adults!) don't realize themselves what they're actually feeling (young children especially). Sometimes, though, it's because expressing feelings in language promotes a sense of control and is therefore cathartic. Naming things typically makes us feel as if we have some control over it. And having our feelings heard and acknowledged by someone we trust or whose approval we need helps to legitimize them and builds our self-esteem. Finally, it instills in children a strong sense that their parents support them, that they can turn to their parents for help and support, which also correlated in the study above with resistance to peer pressure.

Telling a crying child, in other words, to stop crying when he loses his favorite toy, or that "it's no big deal" that he didn't get to see the movie he was looking forward to sends a message that his desires—his feelings—are unimportant or at the very least are sometimes to be denied. On the other hand, acknowledging what he actually feels—or even better, empathizing with him and letting him know you would feel the same way were you in his shoes—has an almost magical ability to help him resolve them.

But even more important, helping a child name and express his unpleasant feelings will help him become more comfortable feeling them and help foster his emotional development. Why do so many of us feel uncomfortable expressing ourselves or even feel ashamed of what we feel? Because we weren't taught how to manage our more unpleasant emotions. So we still struggle with them and thus often find ourselves locked in battles with them. And to battle with a feeling is often to lose to it—meaning when trying to suppress or deny a feeling (like anger or anxiety) it often expresses itself in harmful ways. So we hit someone instead of telling them we're angry, or we abuse alcohol or drugs to make social anxiety more tolerable.

To teach children this skill, the naming and expressing of emotion, requires parents to be able to manage their own, of course, which is no easy feat. But if we can teach our children not only to accept their feelings but also to examine them and express them, they'll learn to manage them—and to feel comfortable not only with their emotions but with themselves as well. Which will build their self-esteem. Which will help inoculate them against peer pressure. Just from learning to name and express what they're feeling.

Check out Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind, which will be published in late 2012.

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