By Chris Taylor, MFT, Author "Back to Basics"
We all probably remember our parents asking us, “if your friend jumped off a bridge would you jump too.” This question obviously evokes mixed feelings and to most of us seems just as absurd today as it did back when we where teens. Well, today it is different for teens and the pressures are amplified. With the rapidly expanding access to drugs and the increasingly dire effects of social media, middle school-aged kids have never had such a hard time.
A recent client of mine was severely bullied for having an iPhone older than a 5. He asked his mom to change schools. Another client was sent home in tears because he liked theatre more than sports. Furthermore, a young girl was publicly shamed because it was discovered that she was sending naked pictures of herself to boys she liked because she was told they would like her.
These are just a few of the hundreds of stories I have heard regarding peer pressure in middle school. I could go on and on but hearing horror stories doesn’t equip parents with the tools they need to address the effects. Here are real strategies that any parent can use to keep their teen from acting based on peer pressure.
First, try to understand why your teen fell victim to the pressure in the first place. Have they been bullied in the past and desperately want connection or are deeply fearful of rejection. By understanding what need your teen is trying to meet by giving into peer pressure you can begin to have conversations with them about healthier ways to meet their needs
Second, bad choices don’t make for a make kid. Mistakes are not opportunities to shame and blame. They are opportunities to learn. Take each lapse of judgment as a teaching moment. Empathize with your teens situation and draw them into conversation by asking about the unique pressures they are facing. This will turn you into an ally and not an adversary. Over time your teen will learn to seek you out as new pressures, peers and decisions arise in their life.
Lastly, when a parent learns that there is a toxic group forming on campus and the exposure of negative situations is increasing for their teen, parents should operate with an all hands on deck mentality. Yes we are trying to teach our teens to navigate the world independently, but they are only equipped to handle so much. Parents can schedule high-level school meetings, connect with other parents and create a supportive community around all the kids. Support and supervision should be the focus, not vilifying “ring leaders.”
Armed with these strategies you can ensure your teen will meet peer pressures with confidence in making the right decision and communicating directly when they have made mistakes. Don’t be afraid to avoid the topic because your teen is hoping you will so they don’t have to because if we are waiting for a younger teen to open up, we may be waiting a long time.