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Teach Your Child / Youth To Choose Friends Wisely
As parents, we often worry about how much influence peers have on our child. We’ve all heard the phrase “peer pressure.” However, recent research suggests that most youth don’t feel overt pressure from their peers to use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs. Youth say that the pressure to do drugs, smoke, or drink comes more from wanting to be accepted, wanting to belong, and wanting to be noticed. In other words, youth drug use often has more to do with the need for peer acceptance than an inability to “just say no” to their peers.
Children want others to like them. Sometimes the group they want to join might be drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, sniffing inhalants, smoking pot, taking LSD, using methamphetamines, smoking crack, or shooting heroin. Sometimes youth turn to alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs to overcome anxiety, change their personality, or give them courage to talk to other people.
Myth vs. Fact
Our society is flooded with messages that encourage our young people to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.
These messages help convince young people that they should join “the crowd.” The myth that “everyone is doing it” fuels the perception that drug use is normal. The reality is that young people consistently overestimate the numbers of their peers who use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs.
Teens are six times more likely to report current use of marijuana when they believe that all or most of the students in their grade use the drug. (2002 NSDUH).
Young people often say that they learn more from friends than family when they reach adolescence. But studies have found that these same adolescents would prefer to learn about a variety of important topics from their parents and other caring adults. While peer influence increases during the teen years, the influence of caring adults can remain strong if you’ve established a solid relationship during the earlier years.
Even if you can’t always be there to help her make the right choices, you can help your child develop skills to manage her need for peer acceptance in positive and productive ways. You can help your child learn how to:
- Refuse both subtle and direct offers of alcohol and drugs.
- Feel comfortable and act appropriately in social situations.
- Analyze and decipher pro-use messages (become media literate)
Action Steps To Help Your Children Cope With Peer Pressure and the Need for Peer Acceptance
- Establish the clear message that you, as a caring adult, do not want them to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Parents, grandparents, elders, aunts and uncles, foster parents, guardians, mentors, and others can play a strong role to help young people face pressures to use alcohol and drugs. In fact, the most common reason that young people give for not using alcohol and drugs is not wanting to harm the relationship between themselves and the caring adults in their lives.
Help your child practice resisting peer pressure. For young people, most peer pressure is just as subtle as it is for most adults. For example, let’s say you just started a low-fat diet and you’ve been at a friend’s home for a party. They’ve been eating chips and dip, but you’ve resisted. Now, it’s time to leave and, as you drive home with your neighbor, she says, “Hey, let’s stop off at the pizza place down the block.” You mutter something about being on a diet and she says, “Oh come on, just one piece of pizza won’t kill you.” This is peer pressure, and it’s the same as what a child experiences when a slightly older pal suggests just taking a “little” hit of a marijuana cigarette because he knows the younger friend really doesn’t want to do drugs. This is why practicing peer pressure resistance is important. Finding creative ways to refuse alcohol, tobacco, and drugs requires humor and lots of practice. Children, especially younger children, love to pretend.
So set a scene as if you and your child were characters in a story. Roleplay saying no to things that your child knows are harmful or against the rules, such as playing with matches, stealing a cookie, or smoking a cigarette. This cannot be a one-time session. You might find, for instance, that a 10-year-old has no trouble at all saying no to trying a beer at a neighbor’s house. However, 3 years later, when the 17-year-old next door asks him if he wants a beer, you hear him hesitate—not as sure of his convictions at 13 as he was at 10.
How To Say “No.”
Children can help develop their own set of “turn down” comments, but it’s your job to help them practice so that they are not thrown off balance if the offer is more subtle or more forceful than anticipated.
A lot will depend on the age and personality of your child. The most important thing is to make sure she’s comfortable with what she wants to say. Your job is to coach her to use language and phrases of her own.
- A shy child might want to say, “No, thanks,” or “I gotta go,” and then walk away quickly.
- A more outgoing child might say, “What? Are you talking to me? Forget it,” or “No, I don’t do drugs.”
- Children who have difficulty refusing offers from older kids or adults may need special help to practice a forceful, believable reason that clearly lets the other party know that they do not want to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.
Help your child feel comfortable in social situations. A basic course in social skills often helps here. Again, it’s a matter of practice. Young people want to be socially accepted. So if being socially accepted means eating with a knife and fork instead of with one’s hands, then that’s what kids want to learn.
Practice meeting and greeting people with your child. Find some sentences that help her “break the ice.” Teach your child how to ask questions about others and to be a good listener.
Again, you can get lots of input from your child. Ask her to describe times when she has felt uncomfortable. Tell her about a situation in which you felt awkward. See if she has ideas about how to act in the same situation in the future. Let her know that social situations often are awkward at first and that they are not very easy for most people. Ask her about her experiences.
Let your child know that some people may turn to alcohol and drugs to get them through awkward social moments, and they never learn how to be comfortable in social situations. Let your child know that it’s okay to feel awkward at times. We all do!
Teach your child to analyze media messages. Many of the media messages about alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs present glamorous images, lure with T-shirts and trinkets, and play upon the desire to be popular and physically attractive. These messages often ignore the risks associated with alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use. The need for group acceptance and peer approval is high during adolescence, and media images often influence youth’s determination of what attitudes, behaviors, and actions are socially “normal” or desirable. Media-literate individuals are better able to make informed choices and form opinions based on facts rather than “hype.”
Help youth think for themselves and resist the many powerful media messages about drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Help them analyze media messages, understand the intent of the messages, and evaluate how the information in the message is used and communicated in a variety of media—television, movies, videos, radio, and in music. These skills are especially important to young people. After all, they’re exposed to an average of 5.5 hours of media each day!
Five Steps To Becoming Media Literate
Media literacy can help youth recognize and understand messages— actual or “between the lines”—delivered in music lyrics, promoted on clothing and jewelry, illustrated in advertisements, and portrayed on TV or in movies. Media literacy helps children build resiliency skills, come to understand that all messages are constructed deliberately, and develop the ability to identify and resist messages that support the use of illegal drugs, tobacco, or alcohol.
Five steps can help you and your child identify, analyze, and evaluate media messages. Each step is one of the five basic principles of media education. By answering the questions in each step, you and your child can become critical consumers of information. Ask your child to pick any media message—a cartoon, a movie, a news photograph, a magazine article, a TV or magazine advertisement, a T-shirt, or song lyrics. Using the five steps, ask her about the messages she received.
Step 1 – Reality: Media messages represent (someone’s) reality. What is the message maker’s point of view?
Step 2 – Interpretation: People interpret media messages differently. How does the message make you feel?
Step 3 – Construction: Each media message is a collection of words, images, and sounds. What special words, images, and sounds are used to create the message?
Step 4 – Purpose: Each media message has an author and a purpose. Who created the message and why?
Step 5 – Form: Media messages come in different forms. How is this message delivered (magazines, television, radio, newspapers, etc.)?
Additional Media Literacy Activities:
- Ask your child some questions the next time you watch a TV commercial or see a billboard: Is that advertisement trying to sell you something? If so, what? Is that product healthy for you? How is the sponsor of that product trying to get you to buy it?
- By making you feel unlovable. (“You won’t be liked if you don’t try this product.”)
- By making you feel left out. (“Everyone is buying it, so don’t be left out.”)
- By making you feel inadequate. (“If you don’t buy this product, you won’t be able to do things as well as everyone else.”)
- By making you feel less masculine or less feminine. (“If you don’t use this product, members of the opposite sex won’t find you attractive.”) How do you feel about the product now?
- The next time your child is watching television, sit down and join him. What does your child like about the program? Talk with your child about whether people in real life look like the people on television or in the movies. What are the differences? How do the people he sees in movies and television make him feel about himself? Does he want to look like the people he sees on TV? Does he want to live the lifestyle he sees represented? Is this realistic?
The next time you and your child pass a billboard, see a television commercial, or notice a print ad in a magazine or newspaper, ask her about the advertising message. What is the ad really selling? A product? A feeling? A lifestyle? Does she believe everything the ad says? Can the product actually do what the ad promises? What else might the product or service do that the ad doesn’t mention? Is the ad misleading in any way? Who is the ad targeting? Why?
- Create your own commercials or ads. Ask your child to pick or create a product or service and then create an advertisement for it. Your child could act out a television commercial, write a radio script, or draw a print ad or billboard. Talk about why he used the images and words that he did. You can get into the act and create an ad, too! Talk about the thought process that you went through to create the ads.
Teaching Your Child To Choose Friends Wisely Is Important Because...
Some Kids Use Drugs To Fit In and Belong
Wanting to fit in, to belong, is one of the most natural parts of growing up. In fact, if we really listen, we may find that, for some, it is the most important part of growing up.
By teaching your child to choose friends wisely, you are giving her skills she needs to feel confident in her own judgment. This can help her resist peer influences to use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs or engage in other dangerous behavior.
Kimberly and Caitlin’s Story
“My daughter came running into the house really upset one day. She had just heard that another girl in the neighborhood had started a nasty rumor about her, and she came in to get her sneakers so she could find this girl and fight her. I told her, ‘You get her, honey! How dare she talk about you!’ Tears in her eyes, my daughter hugged me and then went in her room for her sneakers. She came out and was heading for the door, when I stopped her and told her, ‘You aren’t going anywhere.’ She looked at me with big eyes, ‘But mom, you just said…’ ‘I know what I said. When you came running in here you were hurt and needed a friend. So I said something a friend would say. But now, you’re on your way out, getting ready to do something that could get you hurt, and you need your mom. You’re not going out that door.’ And she didn’t. Instead, we had a long talk about the importance of being true to yourself. She didn’t need to go and fight this girl.
My daughter needed to believe in herself enough to know that her friends and the people she really cared about wouldn’t believe the rumor. She needed to know that people can only push your buttons if you let them and that violence is never a good solution. It was a good reminder for both of us.”