Peer influence and peer pressure

Peer influence is when you choose to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do, because you want to feel accepted and valued by your friends. It isn’t just or always about doing something against your will.

You might hear the term ‘peer pressure’ used a lot. But peer influence is a better way to describe how teenagers’ behaviour is shaped by wanting to feel they belong to a group of friends or peers.

Peer pressure and influence can be positive. For example, your child might be influenced to become more assertive, try new activities, or to get more involved with school.

But it can be negative too. Some teenagers might choose to try things they normally wouldn’t be interested in, like smoking or behaving in antisocial ways.

Peer pressure and influence might result in children:

  • choosing the same clothes, hairstyle or jewellery as their friends
  • listening to the same music or watching the same TV shows as their friends
  • changing the way they talk, or the words they use
  • doing risky things or breaking rules
  • working harder at school, or not working as hard
  • dating or taking part in sexual activities
  • smoking or using alcohol or other drugs.

Being yourself: a balance for peer pressure and influence

It’s normal to worry that your child is being influenced too much by his peers, or that he’s selling out on his values (or yours) to fit in with his friends. It’s also normal to worry that your child won’t be able to say no if he gets pressure to try risky things, like wagging school or smoking.

But listening to the same music and dressing in the same way as friends doesn’t necessarily add up to your child then doing antisocial or risky things.

And if your child is happy with who she is and her choices and values, she’s less likely to be influenced by other people. She might choose to do some things that her friends do, but not others. And your influence is important here – it’s the biggest factor shaping your child’s values and long-term choices.

With your influence and a strong sense of himself, it’s more likely your child will know where to draw the line when it comes peer pressure and influence.

Helping your child manage peer pressure and peer influence

Coping well with peer influence is about getting the balance right between being yourself and fitting in with your group. Here are some ideas to help your child with this.

Build up your child’s self-esteem and confidence
Children who have strong self-esteem are better at resisting negative peer pressure and influence.

You can build your child’s self-esteem and confidence by encouraging her to try new things that give her a chance of success, and to keep trying even when things are hard. You can also be a role model for confidence too, and show your child how to act confident as the first step towards feeling confident.

Praising your child for trying hard is important for building self-esteem and confidence.

Keep the lines of communication open
You can do this by staying connected to your child. This can help him feel more comfortable talking to you if he’s feeling swayed to do something he’s uncomfortable with.

Suggest ways to say no
Your child might need to have some face-saving ways to say no if she’s feeling influenced to do something she doesn’t want to do. For example, friends might be encouraging her to try smoking. Rather than simply saying ‘No, thanks’, she could say something like, ‘No, it makes my asthma worse’, or ‘No, I don’t like the way it makes me smell’.

Give teenagers a way out
If your child feels he’s in a risky situation, it might help if he can text or phone you for back-up. You and your child could even agree on a coded message for those times when your child doesn’t want to feel embarrassed in front of friends. For example, he could say that he’s checking on a sick grandparent, but you’ll know that it really means he needs a hand.

If your child does call you, it’s important to focus on your child’s positive choice to ask you for help, rather than on the risky situation your child is in. Your child is more likely to ask for help if she knows she won’t get into trouble.

Encourage a wide social network
If your child has the chance to develop friendships from many sources, including sport, family activities or clubs, it will mean he’s got lots of other options and sources of support if a friendship goes wrong.

When you’re worried about peer pressure and peer influence

Encouraging your child to have friends over and giving them space in your home can help you get to know your child’s friends. This also gives you the chance to check on whether negative peer pressure and influence is an issue for your child.

Good communication and a positive relationship with your child might also encourage your child to talk to you if she’s feeling negative influence from peers.

If you’re worried your child’s friends are a negative influence, being critical of them might push your child into seeing them behind your back. If your child thinks you don’t approve of his friends, he might even want to see more of them. So it’s important to talk and listen without judging, and gently help your child see the influence his peers are having.

This might mean talking with your child about behaviour you don’t like rather than the people you don’t like. For example, you might say, ‘When you’re with your friends, you often get into fights’. This can be better than saying, ‘You need to find new friends’.

It can help to compromise with your child. For example, letting her wear certain clothes or have her hair cut in a particular way can help her feel connected to her peers, even if you’re not keen on blue hair or ripped jeans. Letting your child have some independence can reduce the risk of more risky choices.

Having friends and feeling connected to a group gives teenagers a sense of belonging and being valued, which helps develop self-esteem and confidence. Friendships also help teenagers learn important social and emotional skills, like being sensitive to other people’s thoughts, feelings and wellbeing.

When to be concerned about peer influence and peer pressure

If you notice changes in your child’s mood, behaviour, eating or sleeping patterns, which you think are because of his friends, it might be time to have a talk with him.

Some mood and behaviour changes are normal in teenagers. But if your child seems to be in a low mood for more than two weeks, or it gets in the way of things she normally enjoys, you might start to worry about your child’s mental health.

Warning signs include:

  • low moods, tearfulness or feelings of hopelessness
  • aggression or antisocial behaviour that’s not usual for your child
  • sudden changes in behaviour, often for no obvious reason
  • trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking early
  • loss of appetite or over-eating
  • reluctance to go to school
  • withdrawal from activities your child used to like
  • statements about wanting to give up, or life not being worth living.

If you’re concerned, start by talking with your child. The next step is to talk to your GP, who can put you in with your local child and adolescent health team or another appropriate professional.

Children at risk of negative peer pressure and influence

Some children are more likely to be negatively influenced by peers. These include children who:

  • have poor self-esteem
  • feel they have few friends
  • have special needs.

These children might feel that the only way they’ll be included and accepted in social groups is by taking on the behaviour, attitudes and look of a group.

Also, peer pressure or influence is strongest in early to middle adolescence. Boys are more likely to give in to peer pressure than girls.

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