In the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout tells her father Atticus that she used a racial slur because it’s “what everybody else at school says.” He replies, “from now on it’ll be everybody less one.” Wanting to “fit in” and be accepted is a powerful motivator that can lead children to inappropriate and even dangerous behavior. Resisting negative peer pressure doesn’t come naturally, it must be learned.

Parents can teach children how to deal with peer pressure before it becomes a problem. The following strategies will help prepare your child for handling peer pressure situations that may come up:

Prepare for Possible Situations

Discuss typical age-appropriate situations that may arise. For young children it may be excluding a classmate or teasing a less popular peer, for older kids it could be skipping class or trying cigarettes or drugs. Discuss the possible consequences of such actions and why they may be tempting. Provide specific examples of typical situations so your child will recognize them and be more prepared with their response. Role-playing can also be helpful.

Set Family Rules

If your family has clear household rules it will be easier for your child to avoid breaking them. Provide your child with certain ground rules like, “in this family we are kind to everyone.” If kindness is a family rule, agreeing to tease another classmate would clearly go against that. The child can then refer to their family rule when refusing to give in to peer pressure.

Discuss Effective Responses

If children are unprepared for responding to peer pressure, they are more likely to react too quickly and give in. Recommend ways for them to get out of a situation that they feel uneasy about with thoughtful responses. They may be able to suggest alternatives to avoid the inappropriate behavior. For example, if asked to skip school, your child may suggest instead getting together directly after school and including more friends. Sometimes it will be best for the child to avoid explaining and justifying their refusal to participate as that can lead to more pressure and arguing. When necessary, a child may need to simply repeat an assertive and firm “no” to peer requests.

Choose the Right Friends

Encourage your child to be selective when spending time with friends. They should look for friends with qualities they admire and who share similar values and ethics. If a particular classmate often incites bad behavior, it may be time to seek out other friends. Be careful not to personally criticize a child’s friends however, better to focus on their behavior. “Peers play a large role in the social and emotional development of children and adolescents,” according to the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry. Their influence begins at an early age and increases through the teenage years.

Stop and Think First

Remind kids to take a minute before reacting to peer pressure. Taking a deep breath and thinking about the consequences prior to answering will allow them to give a more thoughtful response. When they give themselves time to contemplate the results of the requested action, such as hurting another child’s feelings, getting in trouble at school, or getting hurt, they may be less likely to give into the peer pressure. It may also be helpful to assess your child’s emotional intelligence and teach them those skills.

Talk About the Dangerous Behavior

Knowing the facts about drugs, cigarettes and alcohol will help children make informed decisions when faced with the temptation to try them. Don’t wait for your kids to discover the risks on their own, present them with facts and discuss the hazards of these substances. Remember parents’ expectations do influence children’s behavior. A recent survey found that “teens whose parents told them underage drinking is completely unacceptable are 80 percent less likely to drink, compared with those whose parents give their teens’ other messages about drinking,” according to Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Adults are not immune from peer pressure and many have made poor life choices as a result, some with lasting consequences. Taking steps now to help your kids deal with negative peer issues may prevent risky and improper behavior in the future. Remember, as a parent you have more influence than you think! Good communication is the key.

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