What do you say to a child who is convinved that only she can't particpate in the latest craze? You could play the "Life isn't fair," card, but you probably cringe a little every time those words come out of your mouth. You could attempt to ignore the histrionics -- but that's easier said than done. So just what are you supposed to do when your tween wants to be just like "everyone" she knows?
The next time you hear that your child is the only one who's not allowed to go to the R-rated movie, call her bluff, says Dr. Susan Bartell, family psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask (Sourcebooks, 2010). "Begin by saying you are going to call all her friends to see if it's true." Your child will probably rejct that plan, and the conversation may end. You can also run through a list of the child's friends out loud: Is Kelly going? Is Jamie going? Is Dawn going? "It's likely that at least one or two will also have 'mean, strict parents' like you," says Dr. Bartell.
And if -- as is bound to happen at least once in your child's life -- she truly is the only one of her friends forbidden from attending, now what? Well, it turns out that peer pressure is not only a problem for children, it's also dangerous for adults. You'll need to play the unpopular role of the responsible parent. It won't win you any points with your tween, but it will keep her safe in the long run.
If you've gone through the phone call exercise and confirmed that, truly, the entire sixth grade is going to see Slasher Hacksaw Killers with Guns, acknowledge your child's feelings. "It's a good idea to say, 'I'm sorry you're feeling so left out. That must be frustrating, and you're probably mad at me,'" says Dr. Bartell. "Next, say 'But, everyone's family is different and has its own rules. The rules we make are to make sure that you are healthy and safe--even if you don't like them.'" You can also suggest alternate activities, although your tween may not be ready to concede right away.
Later, when your child has had a chance to calm down and collect herself, you can reopen the topic and talk about the dangers of peer pressure. Let your child know that you understand that it's hard to be different, and to stand up to your friends.
In fact, says Dr. Bartell, it's much harder for kids to stand up to peer pressure than most parents realize. "It happens all day long -- in subtle ways," she says. She urges parents not only to talk to kids about peer pressure, but to role model not giving into it. "As an adult, are you buying a cool car or spending money that you don't really have at a restaurant or on a vacation just to fit in with your peers?" she says. Show your kids that you're walking the walk and making your own choices.
When your child does stand up to peer pressure, encourage her. Let her know that you know just how tough it is to make individual choices and be her own person. Tell her that being friends with the cool kids -- or looking or acting just like them -- doesn't make you a better person.
Kids need to hear that "sticking up for what you believe in is more important than anything else in the world," says Dr. Bartell. And by letting them hear that message from you, you'll help them find the strength they'll need when the really tough stuff comes along.
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