Friends, Frenemies and Peer Pressure

Peer PressurePeers are important.  Studies will tell you that, your pediatrician will tell you that, but most importantly your gut will tell you that.

The friends your child makes and their influence on his or her life can often be some of the most important of all. That is quite frightening, isn’t it?  How do you trust your little guy to make the right friends that won’t drag him into drugs at middle school or high school or your daughter to make friends who won’t influence her into early sex because “all the girls are doing it,” down the line?

Much of this post parallels using market research in management.  Examining the climate you are working in is one of the success strategies of any business. It is nearly impossible to operate effectively without knowing your resources and your competition. Applying market research in helping your child negotiate the perils of growing up in today’s society might not have occurred to you, but just by reading this blog and the other books and materials you have been poring over, you have been doing it!

That said, sometimes you can do everything right and still things will be difficult. You have strategies in your tool belt that you have been using from the beginning that will help “peer pressure proof” your child, giving them good self-image and self-worth. You have helped them know that they are loved and important to their family, given them some kind of faith community and moral construct to support them, and surrounded them with people they can talk to. Athletics help give self-confidence and a good self-image to both sexes and as they grow you can also role play to help them with responses they feel comfortable giving when offered drugs, sex, inappropriate activities or anything else they may come up against.

We actually role played responses the girls wanted to give when offered marijuana in high school. Both chose versions of, “No thanks, I’m just not into that.”  Cool, but not judgmental, and it got them out of the situation. I approved, but then asked, “Ok, what if it is your best friend offering?”

That was a little harder, but they both still stuck to their guns: Excellent. I pulled out all of the stops.

“What if it is that really cute guy you have had a crush on all year-long; he has finally noticed you, and you know that if you say ‘No,’ that will probably be the end of that?” Silence: After thinking, they both responded that if he was into grass that much, then they weren’t that interested after all. Touchdown, parenting!!

Okay, so I got lucky and through a fortuitous combination of support from husband, church, friends and a lot of talking about it, my kids avoided trouble. Many good parents I know were not so fortunate and their children had to “touch the iron.” Often, it boiled down to the wrong friends or a stupid decision and there was nothing they could do other than ride that roller coaster with their child, pray for him or her, and stay consistent in their discipline and love. Kids Health has a good guide, divided by age, with suggestions on how to discuss drugs with your kids at any age.

From the very first, even at a young age, don’t discount the power of friends.  Encourage those friendships you see that seem to be constructive and healthy for your child and get to know the family if you can. If you see bad influences (bullying, hitting, domination by either child or general unhappiness on the part of your child) don’t forbid the friendship. Forbidding friendships just makes them more attractive.

Instead, fail to facilitate it. “Too busy; something else came up; someone else asked first.” You will get the hang of it, and soon that destructive friendship will be forgotten in favor of a new one.

As your child goes off to school, it becomes more difficult to figure out who are the good apples for your child, and this is where volunteering in the classroom (if you can) will be a huge advantage.  If you can’t volunteer, make friends with other parents who can, and ask them to keep an eye on what is happening with your child during playtime.  Listen carefully to what your child is saying and remember, repetition is the key.  Children say a lot of things that are not all that important but when it is, they often repeat it.  You will learn to decipher who your child’s new best friend or friends are.  This is also the age when exclusion starts to raise its ugly head and you will need to teach them that although we are often closer to some people than others, we must treat all people with respect.  Tie this to whatever faith ethics you live by and keep talking about it now because trust me, this doesn’t get any easier as middle school approaches.

Other parents can often be a lifeline for you to know what is going on with your child and his or her group of peers, giving you valuable information to plan what to prepare them for next.  Remember “Plan, Prepare, Perform?”  At no time will it be more important than the middle school and high school years because this is when the rubber hits the road for every rule you have ever made and you had better be able to defend your rules, and re-negotiate them if necessary.  (Particularly if you have given birth to a nascent lawyer as we did with Daughter 1. )

Refresh your memory by re-reading “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk and make it clear that if they give you a well-reasoned argument with logic, and include consequences if the agreement is breached, (they must present this with no whining, no “all the other kids are doing it,” and no assumption of agreement on your part) that you will listen with an open mind, discuss it with your partner, and get back to them quickly with an answer. This does two very important things. First, it gives them the feeling of some power and choice in the family, which they should have earned by this time.  Second, it gives you the opportunity to explain in logical and unemotional terms why or why not they can or cannot do certain things they are asking.  Remember the cardinal rule from the beginning of this blog: If you cannot explain the rule and the reasons for it; don’t make it.

So, to close out on the subject of friends: Yes, they are important and yes, you can influence your child’s choices in the beginning, but not for long. Your reaction to their friends needs to be measured, neutral and dependent on how your child feels about them. When they are younger you can control access somewhat but that doesn’t last for long, so what can you do?

One of the most effective things we did was to encourage our children to have more than one group of friends. Get your kids involved with a church group, a cross-city sports activity, a scout troop, or whatever rings their bell. When things go badly with the group of friends at school (and believe me, from time to time they will) it can literally be a life saver to have another group of friends to turn to, who like them and want to spend time with them. Facilitate these alternate friendships and make sure your child does not have all his or her “friend eggs” in one basket. Children who do, and who end up shunned for some stupid reason, are often those who do very sad and permanent things. Give your child a healthy life insurance policy with multiple groups of friends and you will never regret it.

Both of our daughters got involved in their church youth group from an early age, became leaders later on and now influence a younger generation of girls with love and reinforcement. That’s paying it forward in the best way we could have imagined.

Good luck out there – Parenting isn’t for sissies.

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