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Health & Development: Managing Peer Pressure

It starts very subtly. Your preteen starts wanting to dress like her friends ("But Jenna's mom got her those sneakers.") Soon, she's using the same language ("Yeaaah. I know.") The next thing you know, your impressionable middle schooler is morphing into her new best friend.

During the tween and teen years, it's common for kids to look to their peers for cues about how to dress, talk, walk, and even think. Kids want to be liked. They want to fit in. And, during these years, they can be easily influenced.

This can be a cause of concern for parents who worry about the impact of peer pressure.

The truth is - peer pressure isn't all bad. Through their relationships with others, your children can develop meaningful interests, be exposed to positive values, and consider new ideas and perspectives.

But peer influences can also be negative. When children compromise their values, lose their sense of identity or make self-destructive choices to gain the approval of peers, this can be concerning - and dangerous.

While it would be unrealistic to completely eliminate peer influence, there are things parents can do to encourage their children's individuality and support their ability to make responsible and independent choices.

*Support individuality. From their earliest years, avoid comparing your children to others. Focus on what makes them special. Nurture their interests. When children learn to value their unique qualities, they may be less likely to imitate the qualities and behaviors of others as they grow.

*Promote assertiveness. Talk with your children about how to say "no" to others, stand up for their beliefs, and assert themselves in appropriate ways. They might enjoy participating in role-plays or brainstorming sessions with you to identify various ways to handle real-world challenges.

*Know your children's friends. Invite their friends to your home after school and on weekends. Gain insight into your children's relationships with others, and learn more about their interests, behaviors and beliefs.

*Encourage a variety of friendships. When children develop a variety of relationships, they may be less likely to experience the influence of one particular child. Look for after-school activities, volunteer experiences, religious groups, or hobbies that can help expand their circle of friends.

*Build strong relationships. Spend time with your children, encourage their interests, provide fair and appropriate limits and privileges, maintain realistic expectations, practice non-judgment, and promote open communication. A positive relationship with your children can provide a buffer against the potentially negative influences of others.

*Be available. As your children grow, they will seek their friends' company and approval more often. This is typical during the teen years. Although there will be times when your kids appear to value their friendships more than their relationship with you, hang in there. Be present and available.

*Be a role model. Your role in your children's life is more significant than you may realize. In a recent study, almost half of all teens named a family member as a role model. Adolescents who have positive role models are more likely to do well in school, have higher self-esteem and are less likely to succumb to negative peer pressure. Live a healthy lifestyle, manage your stress, develop healthy adult relationships, respect yourself and others, and share your values with your kids. They are watching you.

*Seek additional support. If your child appears to be negatively influenced by peers, has a poor self-image, or you have other concerns, seek professional guidance.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org. She is past chair of the National Parenting Education Network and author of "Positive Parenting," a weekly feature of the Miami Herald.

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