1. Parenting

When Your Kids Are Popular with the Wrong Crowd

Tips to Deal With Peer Pressure

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Growing Up Too Fast, by Sylvia Rimm, PhD

Growing Up Too Fast, by Sylvia Rimm, PhD

Slyvia Rimm
There seems to be nothing more difficult for parents to tolerate than seeing their kids bond with a negative peer group. Students who don't value school are often antiparents and pro-alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex and thrive on irreverent and often obnoxious music. Your kids will probably proclaim that they are good and loyal friends or that they're much nicer and less shallow than the "preppies" and "jocks." These negative peers may indeed be kinder to your children than some other kids you'd prefer for them to befriend. Your kids may become secretive, say that you're controlling, and protest that you have no right to say with whom they can be friends. Below are preventive strategies that can work well for encouraging your kids to avoid negative peers.

Don't Pressure Kids to Make Friends

Many of the antischool kids I've worked with are lonely, attention seeking, and sometimes aggressive as elementary-age children. Parents and teachers are anxious about their kids' lack of friends, even when they do have a few. Parents and teachers often put pressure on them to make friends, and the kids connect having a large group of close friends with healthy adjustment. They feel that adults are disappointed in them when they don't have friends, and by middle school, they become so anxious about making friends that they're willing to do almost anything to be included in any group that validates them. They develop a deep resentment toward the bright, achieving, or athletic kids who haven't accepted them, and they share that resentment in order to build solidarity with another group. In some ways, they believe that "good kids" are bad, because the "bad kids" are loyal to each other, although they may appear tough or mean to outsiders.

When your kids are a little lonely, it's important to label it as independence even though you realize it isn't easy for them. In that way, you avoid putting too much pressure on them to make friends and become popular. Use this time to help them learn skills and develop interests that will enable them to share activities with others. For example, learning to play chess will encourage them to play with other kids, developing an interest in music or art will give them a passion to share with other positive young people who also enjoy those activities, or playing soccer or taking gymnastics classes will make them feel like part of a team. Once they have friends who share their interests, they will be less likely to feel pressured to unite with negative kids.

Avoid Conspiratorial Relationships

Rebellious adolescents are often overempowered by parents who are divided. A mother who allies with her child against the dad, or a father who allies with a child against the mom, teaches a child that relationships become closer and more intimate when two people share a common enemy. Learning to feel close to a person only when there's a common enemy can become a very negative but intense habit, which transfers naturally to finding a peer group or even a boy- or girlfriend who is against school or parents.

This alliance-against-an-enemy relationship with a parent becomes an even greater risk during or after a divorce. Mothers who have been rejected by their husbands can be especially vulnerable to sharing intimate details about the husband's behavior. Although at first it seems that kids understand the situation and value the intimate sharing, this too-intimate practice almost always backfires. Divorce is no time to assume that children are mature enough to be your counselors or confidantes. Not only does this place kids in an impossible dilemma, but it also teaches them to disrespect and rebel against their other parent, which will in turn cause the other parent to teach them disrespect for you. You're giving up your adult responsibility when your kids may require it most.

Help Kids Adjust to a Move

Another important prevention scenario takes place after a move to a new community. I recommend having your child paired with other kids initially when moving to a new school. The kids with whom she's paired could make her feel more comfortable, as well as include her in a positive group. The selection of those new friends should be made carefully. You can probably do that most diplomatically if you share with the teacher or counselor your child's positive interests. If you do this, it's more likely that your child and those with whom she's paired will have activities or interests in common.

Sometimes teachers pair negative or needy kids with new students in the hopes of helping them. Caution your child that finding good friends takes time. Be reassuring that there's no need to hurry it along, and that you're certain that eventually he'll find good friends. Seeking popularity encourages the quest for status and quantity of friends, which may or may not turn out to be a good thing, depending on the values of the popular peer group in the school.

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