How to Help Your Kids Handle Peer Pressure

Coping with “best friends” necklaces and other social woes

Coping with “best friends” necklaces and other social woes
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Remember "Best Friend" necklaces? They were big among pre-teen girls, circa 1986. The goal: Share one jaggedly cut half of the heart pendant (which read, depending on your half, "BE FRI" or "ST END") with a pal you were proud of or who at least had a decent social standing. Girls even identified—somewhat jokingly, but you never really knew—as either a "BE FRI" or a "ST END," and related to peers who shared the same heart half. The necklaces, at some point, were produced with three-way splits, maybe more—the result, ostensibly, of countless mothers aiming to address their daughters' heartbreak.

And this, my friends, is adolescence in a nutshell.

No one is immune to what Boston-based psychologist Lawrence Cohen calls "normal social pain"—the teasing and exclusion typically experienced by 8 to 13 year olds. What's happening here is a need for belonging that was previously met by the family unit and expanded on by the simple, structured classroom, says Cohen, author of "Playful Parenting" and a co-author of "Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children." "When you're really young, your family's your whole world," and at the age of 6 or 7, "the group identity is 'we are Mrs. Smith's class.'" Between the ages of roughly 9 to 12, a child's world becomes bigger and more complex, and a group identity narrows and secures his or her place in it, Cohen explains.

That desire to find a group of friends and to fit in isn't a bad thing. It's healthy—and, by the way, lasts a lifetime. What isn't, and thankfully doesn't, is social rejection. "There aren't that many adults that are desperate to be in a group that is too snooty" to take them in, Cohen says. (We'll assume Groucho Marx was of the minority opinion).

Until then, parents can do a lot to help their children cope with the turbulent age of adolescence.

"Bank time with them," says Patti Kelley Criswell, a clinical social worker, instructor of social work at Western Michigan University and author of numerous American Girl books about friendship and self-esteem. According to Criswell, "talking in paragraphs" is the benchmark for good communication. If you and your child are only exchanging one-liners, it's important to deepen the connection.

[See Teen Stress: How Parents Can Help.]

But how does one do that? Criswell suggests that parents adopt a tolerant approach in which one expresses wonder or curiosity about a child's thoughts and feelings. "Most kids really want that. They want the discussion. They want to be taken seriously," she says.

Cohen suggests parents listen more and advise less. "Listen with empathy, and then encourage them to come up with their own solutions," he says. It's also important for parents not to conflate their child's experience with their own difficult memories of adolescence. The key in navigating your child's social situation is to talk realistically and rationally about what's happening, he says. You might ask, for example, why the kids have given so much power to the leader of a clique.

If your child has suffered from a tough incident, it's helpful to discuss how he or she could have responded differently, says Patti Adler, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado and co-author with her husband, Peter Adler, of "Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity." "Even though it happened already, it's going to happen again and not that differently," she says. "So if you arm your kid with some responses or some options, that's a very good thing to try."

[See How to Spot and Stop Bullying.]

Adler's son was badly bullied in school, and routinely beaten up on his way to the bus from school. But she knew better than to intervene—at least not conspicuously—as that "marks the kid" as weak, she says. "They go for the jugular when they see weakness, so you really can't intervene directly." Instead, she arranged for school staff to alternate standing on the path to the bus after school. Ultimately, she enrolled him in tai kwan do, he retaliated and that was the end of that.