Is your elementary school-aged child at risk for peer pressure?
While most people associate peer pressure with teen drug use or sexual activity, there’s a whole other side to peer pressure that sadly is often overlooked: peer pressure among children.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Maryland, peer pressure actually begins – not in the teenage years – but in childhood, closer to age 9.
And this study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics demonstrates how children as young as 4 can be influenced by peer pressure — even when they know better.
Because peer pressure in childhood doesn’t always look the way you think.
Drug and Alcohol Statistics for Children and Teens
While teen drug and alcohol use and sexual activity are definitely areas of concern, they don’t appear to be a significant concern until the pre-teen to teenage years.
- People who use drugs typically start during the teen years, according to this article on Drugabuse.gov.
- The average first age of alcohol use is around 14, according to this research published by the NIH.
- The peak age for trying smoking for the first time is between 11 and 13, according to this publication by tobaccofreekids.org.
- Sexual activity is quite rare among children younger than 13, according to this article on Medical News Today.
In fact, this in-depth study on adolescent drug use sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes on Health doesn’t mention children younger than 8th grade at all.
Sobering news if you’re the parent of a teen (and I hope to do an article on that at some point too!), but not really the issue at hand when you’re the parent of a child still in elementary school.
Peer Pressure and Young Children
Children, on the other hand, still face the pressure to fit in, but they face it in a very different way than teens.
This pressure doesn’t typically come from the “bad kid” your children should know to stay far, far away from, but from friends and classmates who simply want to do certain things or do things a certain way and expect your children to conform.
For example, elementary aged children may start to form small groups or cliques around common interests or hobbies, causing those who don’t share those same interests to feel left out (either intentionally or unintentionally).
Children who excel at a sport may not want to play with those who are less athletically inclined. Children who excel academically may not want to be in a group with someone who struggles.
There are millions of reasons why children may be left out or made to feel unwelcome in the group.
Children pick up on this pressure to look or act a certain way, and it can have a huge impact on their thoughts and behavior — both positively and negatively — as they struggle to fit in and be accepted by the group.
How to Help Children Struggling with Peer Pressure
While peer pressure can be positive in some situations (it does help children learn to fit in and be a part of the group), it can also easily lead to hurt feelings and poor decision making as children begin to prioritize their friends’ and peers’ opinions over their parents’.
Your children may not be at risk for drugs and alcohol quite yet, but the time to start teaching the skills to stand up under pressure is now. Here’s what I would recommend:
1. Create a Positive Home Environment
Everyone needs to feel loved, accepted and like they belong. They are basic, God-given needs that help us form relationships with others and live in community.
The problem happens, however, when we are unable to meet these needs in a healthy relationship so we look elsewhere.
As your child’s parent, you have a responsibility to provide your children with a secure place where they fit in, belong and are accepted just as they are.
This doesn’t mean you have to be the perfect Proverbs 31 woman at all times. No one is perfect. But you DO have a responsibility to teach your children who they are in Jesus and help them learn to ground their identity in Him.
It won’t be “enough” — your kids still need friends their own age too — but the more love and acceptance they feel at home, the less likely they will be to desperately need to be liked and accepted by their peers.
2. Teach Your Children What to Look for in a Friend
Do you teach your children they have to be friends with everybody? If so, you may want to rethink that strategy.
While you do want your children to be kind and inclusive to everyone, this does NOT mean that they have to be everyone’s friend, and in fact, they really should be somewhat picky.
Proverbs 13:20 tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.'”
The people your children choose to spend their time with WILL have a tremendous impact on what type of choices they make and what type of people they will become. Do they know how to choose wisely?
Here are a few questions you may prompt your children to ask themselves:
- Is this person kind to me and to others?
- Does this person enjoy the same hobbies and activities I do?
- Does this person get in trouble often?
- Does this person make poor choices or do things you aren’t allowed to do?
There’s no need to label other children as “bad” or “troublemakers.” Simply explain that your child’s friends will affect his or her behavior, and that you want your child to find a good friend who will be a “good fit” for them and encourage them to make good choices.
3. Teach Your Children to Think for Themselves
Want to teach your children to stand up for what they believe in, even in the face of massive peer pressure? Give them opportunities to have and express their opinions and ideas at home.
This does not mean that they should be allowed to be disrespectful, rude or defiant. Only that they should be allowed to have an opinion as well, and that their opinions and ideas matter.
Especially as your children start to get older. You do NOT want your children to just do what you say all day long. You want to teach them to think for themselves.
For example, instead of simply telling your children “Do this” and “Don’t do this,” ask them to think things through.
“What do you think would happen?” “Would that be a good choice?” and “What do you think you should do instead?” are three excellent questions to get in the habit of asking.
4. Ask Your Children to Decide in Advance
And don’t let your children wait until they are in the situation before they think things through. Ask them to decide in advance.
This way, they know exactly what to do when faced with a compromising situation, and they can test out their ideas in the safety of your home rather than in the heat of the moment.
- What should you do if you see a boy teasing another boy on the playground?
- What should you do if you see someone with no place to sit at lunch?
- What should you do if one of your classmates smells really bad?
- What should you do if someone says “You can’t be in our group!”
You’ll never be able to cover every possible scenario, but don’t be afraid to get creative. It teaches your children critical thinking skills they’ll need to stand up to peer pressure later on.
5. Teach Your Children About Peer Pressure and Authority
While peer pressure is a pretty common concept in high school, younger children may have no concept of it. And when someone else makes them feel like they don’t fit in, they may not know that the other child is being inappropriate.
That’s why early elementary school is a great time to talk about authority, or “Who is in charge?”
Here are a few general guidelines you can establish fairly quickly and easily:
- Does your child have to listen to you? Yes.
- Does your child have to listen to his or her teacher? Yes, unless you say differently.
- Does your child have to listen to his or her older brother or sister? Nope, they’re not the boss.
- Does your child have to listen to what the other kids say? Nope, they’re not the boss.
Other kids can say whatever they want, but they are kids, they can be wrong sometimes, and they’re not the boss. They don’t get to decide. They don’t have the authority.
If the other kids are being mean, then THEY are the ones who are being mean (ie it’s their fault and their problem), and who wants to be friends with people who are mean anyways? Not me.
6. Stay Involved
And last but not least — Stay involved!
As your children grow up, they will start to care less and less about what you think and more and more about what their peers think. This is completely natural and normal.
But you are STILL the parent, you are still in charge, and you still have every right to make sure your kids stay safe, happy and healthy. Don’t give up that right and that responsibility just yet.
(Are your children already adults who are making poor choices? You want this article instead: How to Respond to an Adult Child Living in Sin)
Talk to your kids. Find out who their friends are, what they are like, and what they’re up to.
Ask how school is going — what they like and don’t like, what they worry about and what they excel at. Ask which teachers are nice and mean. Ask what they had for lunch that day — just ask.
Your kids may not open up at first, and that’s okay. But be there and be available — for both the big stories and the little ones.
Because in just a few years, you’re going to be dealing with teen peer pressure, and well, that’s a whole new monster altogether…
Do your kids struggle with peer pressure at school? How do you help them find good friends and fit in?