Twelve-year-old Sugan was good at academics and also actively participated in sports and other extra-curricular activities in his school. He was a very well-behaved child. His parents, both teachers, believed in strict discipline. Being god-fearing themselves, they inculcated a strong sense of values and ethics in Sugan.
During one summer vacation, Sugan joined a group of friends to play cricket in a neighbourhood park. Even after his holidays ended, he continued to play with them in the evenings. Weeks passed by. Gradually, Sugan’s parents began to notice a change in his attitude. He showed signs of becoming rebellious. There was also a slump in his performance in school. His participation in other activities also dwindled. Nothing could stop him from meeting his ‘cricket’ friends every day. Sugan’s parents thought it was the typical ‘teen syndrome’. However, as time went by, Sugan’s personality changed completely. In due course, Sugan’s parents came to know that he had taken to drinking and drug abuse. They were shocked that their son, who had had the privilege of a good upbringing, could become an addict. It took several counselling sessions and therapy for Sugan to quit his habits.
What we learn from Sugan’s case is that he ended up being a part of a wrong peer group and succumbed to peer-pressure. His parents were ignorant of the fact, in the initial stages. Therefore, they could not advise him on managing his peer relations.
Humans are, by nature, social animals. We need to form and be in groups. But what matters is, how much of an influence that group or individuals in that group can have on us when deciding between right and wrong. This is of special importance in children’s social lives, as they like to imitate those around them. Young minds are so fragile that they can easily get swayed by wrong influence. This is where peer management comes in. As parents, it is essential that you teach children to effectively manage their peer relations.
What parents should do
Before imparting peer management skills to your child, here are four important pointers:
Know your child’s peers
‘Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,’ goes an old adage. Quite true. It is important to know your child’s friends and peer-group in order to understand your child better. Invite them for special occasions such as birthday parties and festivals. You can even encourage group studies and group play in your home. Such occasions will give you an opportunity to get to know the kind of peers your child mingles with. This will help you to deal with peer-related issues better.
Adopt the right parental peer management strategies
Prohibiting, supporting and guiding are some of the key strategies adopted by parents. While one approach may work in a given context, it may not work in another context. Also, what may work in a specific context for one parent, may not work in the same context for another parent. Therefore, exercise prudence in adopting the right strategy.
An interesting finding in a study titled, ‘Can parental monitoring and peer management reduce the selection or influence of delinquent peers? Testing the question using a dynamic social network approach’, by Tilton-Weaver et al. in the journal Developmental Psychology (2013) states that parental disapproval of peers, which restricts contact with those who exhibit antisocial behaviour, may increase association with delinquent peers and adolescent delinquency. This shows that prohibiting may not always work.
Remember that parental monitoring and control is essential when it comes to children’s peers as underlined in the following research:
A study titled, ‘Parenting practices and peer-group affiliation in adolescence’, by Brown et al. published in the journal Child Development (1993), emphasises the importance of parental monitoring and control in preventing the child from developing affiliations with deviant peers.
Have open lines of communication with your child
Traditionally, parental monitoring was about actively seeking information from the child and keeping a tab on the child’s activities. But, modern parenting approaches throw a fresh perspective on the subject. They stress on having open communication with your child so that your knowledge of his activities is based on his willingness to share information with you without being prompted to do so. This will help foster trust in each other.
Collaborate with your child’s school/teacher
Your child spends most of her waking hours in the school. This is where she forms friendships and group bonds. Though such relationships may also exist for her in the extended family circle and neighbourhood, the ties in her school have a strong influence on her. Meet your child’s teacher regularly to understand the kind of friends or groups your child prefers. Such meetings will also bring to light any behavioural issues that may stem from the influences of such friends. It will help you and the teacher to chalk out steps to tackle those issues.
Helping children manage their peers
So, now that we have seen how to manage our children’s peers, let’s look at how we can educate and help our children manage their peers:
Choosing the right friend
Let children understand that friends have a direct bearing in shaping one’s personality as they are the major influencers in a person’s life. Therefore, let children choose their friends wisely. Let them also learn to evaluate friendships. However, you should avoid giving them the impression of being judgemental. Have discussions with them on what qualities to look for in a friend. Such discussions will help them make wise decisions.
Handling peer relations
Acceptance, rejection, teasing and bullying are a part of peer group behaviour. If your child is rejected by his peer group and feels isolated, talk with him to understand the problem. It might either be that he doesn’t have much in common with the group or that he lacks sufficient social skills. In the case of the former, encourage him to choose a close-knit group, the members of which have common interests. In the case of the latter, groom his pro-social skills. This will aid his peer interaction and help him gain acceptance among his peers. Advise your child to refrain from teasing and bullying. If your child is being bullied, teach him to stand up against the bully.
Tackling peer conflicts
Teach children that it is not only important to establish relationships but also to sustain them. Teach them problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. They should realise that they need to be both ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ in their peer relationships. Let them be quick to apologise and equally quick to forgive. This is the best approach in tackling conflicts.
Stand up to pressure
Train your children to stand up against pressure and be assertive when it comes to choosing between doing what is right and what is wrong. They should learn to say, ‘No’ when needed. Give them mock situations at home to practise saying, ‘No’ and also to come up with a strategy to face such situations. Tell them that the best approach would be to leave the ‘pressure zone’ immediately.
Using peer mentoring as an effective tool
Peer pressure is not all about negative influence, it can also have a positive influence. Children can relate easily to a mentor from among their peers than to one outside that circle. As a parent, you can use this to your advantage by relying on peer mentoring for positive habit formation, giving up of negative habits and strengthening specific skill-sets. This can be done by encouraging children to be in the company of those whom you would want them to model their lives and lifestyles on. Such an approach will change your perception of your children’s peer group and the effect it can have on their behaviour. You will begin to believe in the power of positive peer pressure.
Given the above approaches to peer management, it would appear to be a real challenge for our children. But, if they adopt what the American writer Dr Seuss said as their motto, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” it will help them face this challenge squarely.
What is peer pressure?
It is the influence of a social group on an individual. The Oxford American Dictionary defines peer pressure as, ‘Pressure from people of your age or social group to behave like them in order to be liked or accepted’. Peer pressure leads to conforming to the group’s norms in several areas, such as attitudes, interests, perceptions, habits, dress code and speech patterns. Where children are concerned, their choice of clothes, books, movies, after-school activities – all these and more come under the scanner of ‘peer review’ for acceptability. For that’s what being part of a group does – it helps gain a sense of identity and belonging.
The power of peer pressure
As early as 1998, Judith Rich Harris, an independent psychology researcher, in her book, ‘The Nurture Assumption: Why children turn out the way they do’, put forth the argument that parental influence did not matter much when it came to determining the behaviour of children. Instead, she stated that a child’s peer group was far more important. Though this theory was not widely accepted at that time, today, its relevance is felt. If a child’s behaviour can be shaped by the peer group, we can only imagine the sway that peer pressure can have on the child.
Age vs Peer Pressure
It is generally thought that peer pressure begins during adolescence. But, recent researches indicate that it begins much earlier.
In the University of Maryland’s news resource UMD Right Now dated June 5, 2013, developmental psychologist, Melanie Killen states, "Peer group influence is not just an adolescent issue. Peer group pressure begins in elementary schools, as early as age nine. It's what kids actually encounter there on any given day." Even the Online Encyclopedia of Children’s Health mentions that peer pressure can be found in groups as young as age two.
Going by these statements, we can understand that children can come under the influence of their peers much earlier than we had thought.
While dealing with the issue of peer pressure, we need to understand that peers and friends are very important for children. So, we need to help them manage their peer relations without losing their uniqueness. Let your children realise that while they share certain similarities with their peers, they also differ from them in certain aspects. If they understand this, they will not yield to everything their friends ask them to do.
We also need to teach children how to say ‘No’ to certain things. That is where values upheld by the family and its outlook towards life play an important part. When children face undue pressure to do something they shouldn’t be doing, make them realise that they will have to stay away from the company of those peers. They can always form other healthy relationships.
- Dr Sumathi Narayanan, President, Creative Communication & Management Center, Chennai
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