Peer relationships

Peer relationships

CcCormack, Patricia M

Peer pressure consists of expectations to conform to the norms of an age or interest group. Peer approval through conformity is a persistent challenge to children of all ages, particularly adolescents. It can be positive when it influences a child to participate in worthwhile activities, events, or goals, but sometimes it is the force behind negative activities.

The concern for popularity creates a psychological pressure to be like everybody else rather than being independent. An adolescent experiments with a wide variety of behaviors in order to find a place in his peer group, often at the cost of his personal interests, values, needs, and preferences; being true to himself; or coming to know his truest self. Fear of rejection and fear of being made fun of are such barriers to self-esteem that children are willing to pay a high price to achieve and maintain peer approval.

As a member of a peer group, a child perceives that she has more influence than she would have as a single individual. This is comforting; it lends stability and substance to her view of herself; and it strengthens her to face an inner world of confusion, self-doubt, and conflict. Membership in a peer group expands an adolescent’s feelings of self-worth and protects her from loneliness. It fulfills a basic human need for belonging, acceptance, and significance. It is no surprise, then, that children form exclusive cliques, which are comforting to members of the “in crowd,” but a source of pain for those who are left out.

Peer pressure is observable in children of various ages, but particularly during the teenage years. Generally by age 17, adolescents develop an appreciation of their personal values and become more comfortably able to resist peer pressure, although many adults continue to struggle under the weight of peer pressure.

If you are a parent of teenagers, you will recognize the following symptoms of adolescence that feed peer pressure. If you are not yet a parent of teens, fasten your safety belt as you embark upon a future that highlights the following characteristics of teens. Children study themselves in the mirror; imagine that they are someone else or somewhere else; worry about what their friends will think; have an inferiority complex about their looks, personality, dress, and abilities; question their identity and future; become acutely conscious of everything around them; feel bad about themselves; become supercritical; and are excessively sensitive and vulnerable to the opinion of peers.

Peer Cruelty

At any stage in life, but particularly when motivated by peer pressure, children can really be cruel to each other and demonstrate abusive, intolerant, or rude behavior. Through insults, taunting, hurting words, putdowns, name-calling, domination, ostracizing, or bullying, they pick on the weakest members of the group. Both physically and emotionally they hurt delicate children and treat the possessions of others with irreverence and disdain. Though all children have the capacity for both kind and hurtful behavior, those who have a close relationship with their parents and identify with the values of their families are less susceptible to peer pressure. It is the primary vocation of parents to form children who know themselves and accept their assets and limitations; who respect, affirm, and care about others; and who view all people as made in the image of God.

This month’s Handbook offers information to deal effectively with the issue of peer pressure. May the suggestions that follow affirm your parenting style and serve as a guide to support your efforts in child formation.

Strengthening Children to Resist Peer Pressure

* Help them develop phrases to use in response to predictable tough situations such as group teasing of a single student, cutting classes, cheating, drinking, drugs, smoking, sex, attending inappropriate movies:

“I don’t feel like it.”

“I’ve decided not to do that anymore.”

“It’s not worth the risks.”

“My record is clean. I plan on keeping it that way.”

“I’d like to, but I hope to live to be 20.”

“I can’t afford to be grounded by my parents.”

“No. And if you had my parents you wouldn’t do it either!”

* Teach your child to use the ACTS Response Strategy to Peer Pressure Situations:

1. Assess the situation. Consider the who, what, when, where, and how. Who are you with, what is happening and when, where are you, how are people acting, and how do you feel about what is occurring?

2. Consider the consequences. How will you feel about yourself tomorrow? Could this be trouble in your life? Is it harmful to your health or soul? How would your parents or loved ones feel about your decision? What positive results can you predict? What negative results can you expect?

3. Test the effect of the decision on your self-esteem. How will you feel if you give in to this pressure? How will you feel about yourself if you do not give in to the pressure?

4. State your position with confidence. Assume good body posture. Make eye contact. Speak in a controlled voice. State your position in a simple sentence, e.g., “I have other plans.” “I promised my parents that I wouldn’t.”

* Help your children to differentiate the permanent value of traits like character, sensitivity to others, and industry from transient values that change with age, for example, good looks and sports ability.

* If you do not like a behavior choice of your child, use quiet words of advice that demonstrate understanding. Serious antisocial behavior requires a serious response, such as grounding or social restrictions.

* Make systematic, planned efforts to develop moral reasoning and self– control in your children.

* Provide books, conversation, and films that help adolescents to make sense of their feelings, body changes, desires, and struggles.

* Sensitize your children to reflect on choices and consequences before acting. Give them the vocabulary of “what is the most helpful thing I can do in this circumstance?” and “what is the least harmful thing I can do?”

Help a Child to Cope with Rejection

* Be a good listener. Hear the words and feel the emotion behind the words. Do not always try to solve or explain away the feelings.

* Teach your child how to evaluate rejection or criticism, rather than accepting it at face value. It can be a tool for clarifying his own values. The effect that rejection has on him depends on what he decides to do about it. “What positive thing can I learn from what my critic is saying?”

* “Learn something from everyone, even if it is what not to be.”

* If your child is experiencing rejection for an unknown reason, first check on hygiene habits and the cleanliness of body and clothing. Then ask a favorite teacher to observe and to offer solutions.

* Remind her of times that she did not want to play with someone, especially times when her choice was not a statement against the other child.

* Explain that sometimes other children do not feel good about themselves and they think being mean will make them feel better. Help him to view the rejection as a statement about the other person, not himself.

* Maintain a list or photo collage of people who love her and what it is that each appreciates about her. Refer her to it when she is feeling unloved, isolated, or rejected.

* Ask him to be proactive and think of some way that he can add to the group or form his own group, being careful not to exclude others. Encourage him to be the initiator of peer events, not relying on others to provide entertainment and companionship.

* Offer to help him learn the skill that he lacks, e.g., pitching, roller skating, bicycling.

* Encourage her to invite a friend to your home or to an outing.

* Encourage friendships in places other than school, like scouts, dance classes, or the neighborhood.

Help a Child to Avoid Isolating Other Children

* Ask a reference librarian to suggest children’s literature that illustrates empathy, understanding of others, acceptance of differences, etc.

* Guide your child to understand the reasons why sarcasm, cattiness, and put-down remarks reveal insecurity and are unkind and self-defeating behavior.

* Model through word and example the virtues of empathy, compassion, self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.

* Through film, books, and discussion, expose your children to the characteristics of appropriate social behavior.

* Use role-playing to help your child see how another child might feel about a peer pressure situation.

* During elementary school years, invite all the students to parties so that no one is left out. Or, if numbers need to be limited, extend invitations privately. Instruct your child not to discuss the party at school where uninvited students may be hurt.

* Peer abuse is lessened by building respect, kindness, and self-esteem. Teach your child to be affirming of others, to express appreciation, recognition, and admiration.

Sr. Patricia M. McCormack, IHM, Ed.D., an Associate of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Education at Catholic University, Washington, DC, has taught in elementary and secondary schools; served as elementary school principal; and directed teacher education at the collegiate level. She is an experienced public speaker on identity formation and the author of Fostering Student Self– Esteem in the Catholic Elementary School (National Catholic Educational Association, 1999). Reach her by mail at Immaculate Heart Convent, 6600 Little Falls Road, Arlington, VA 22214– 1299; or by e-mail at

Copyright Peter Li, Inc. Apr 2001

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