Dr. Jeff Hersh: Help your kids through peer pressure

Dr. Jeff Hersh

Q: I am concerned that my eighth-grade daughter is being pressured by her friends. Is there anything I can do?

A: Friends and family share our experiences and confidences, give us feedback and advice, encourage us, pick us up when we fall, socialize with us, and give us a sense of belonging. All of these are important, and from them we learn and grow. This is especially true for middle school-aged kids, because developmentally, fitting in is very important at this age.

Peer pressure is an influence from others that we perceive as trying to get us to modify our behavior. It can be overt, with peers coaxing us to do something; or it can be subtle, such as verbal or non-verbal signals that may even be unintended. Especially when striving to fit in, kids sometimes succumb to peer pressure.

Peer pressure can be positive, such as friends telling us not to be nervous and to try out for that extracurricular activity we really want to do. We may think of positive peer pressure as friends setting good examples, giving us encouragement or good advice, and being supportive.

Of course, peer pressure can also be negative. When kids are worried about fitting in, being liked and being part of a group, they may be pressured into making bad decisions and doing things they would not otherwise do.

All kids are at risk of succumbing to negative peer pressure. Kids perceived as being popular are at risk since they may feel tremendous pressure to remain popular.

Kids who feel like they do not fit in are also at risk. This includes kids who have low self-esteem, are insecure, lack confidence, feel isolated, do not make friends easily, lack a strong support group of friends, have poor academic skills, feel uncertain about their place in their peer group or do not have many independent personal interests (and so rely more on being part of a group).

There are many things a parent can do to support their child:

- Talk to your child and, even more importantly, listen to them. If they are concerned about fitting in, you can help by getting them involved in positive peer groups such as Scouting, after-school activities, etc., and by encouraging them to develop their independent personal interests to make them more confident (of course, being sure this does not isolate them from their peers).

- Know where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. Preventing difficult situations can minimize problems.

- Get to know the kids your child is spending time with, and try to be sure they are kids more likely to be positive influences.

- Help your child prepare for difficult situations by rehearsing with them. This includes preparing them for inevitable peer pressure situations: 20 percent of kids younger than 13 have tried cigarettes; 25 percent of kids 14-17 have tried illegal drugs and 67 percent have tried alcohol; and 33 percent of kids 14-15 have had sexual intercourse.

- Help them learn how to say no. For example, tell them they can use you as a bailout excuse ("My folks would kill me, and they seem to always find out").

- Make sure they know you will be there to back them up. Encourage them to call you if they need to get out of a difficult situation, and let them know you will pick them up without being punitive or judgmental.

Of course the most important thing is to teach your kids to use their own best judgment. If they think something they are considering doing may be wrong, it likely is. Encourage them to ask certain questions to gauge the situation.

Is this something they:

- Would be ashamed of?

- Think you would disapprove of?

- Would lie about to cover up?

Tell them to trust their instincts, and if they are considering doing something that would fail the screening questions above (and others you may want to add) then they should likely not be doing it.

Being exposed to peer pressure is an inevitable part of growing up; it cannot be completely avoided. Therefore you need to do your best to help your child be prepared and to react in ways that will keep them safe and make good decisions that you and they will be proud of.

Jeff Hersh, Ph.D., M.D., F.A.A.P., F.A.C.P., F.A.A.E.P., can be reached at