Dealing with peer pressure: How to empower your teen

Young adults in separate groups, peer pressure concept
Working as a family to establish clear and shared values can help young people better navigate peer pressure and behaviors that may make them uncomfortable. (Image: Adobe Stock/Dave Chrisom, Boston Children's).

With every coming of age almost inevitably comes changing friendships, relationships, and social pressures. But gone are the days when it was considered best practice to tell young people to ignore their peers’ bad behavior or troubling situations. So what should you do?

Here, social worker Nanci Ginty Butler, director of mental health services in the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, shares two concepts for parents to keep in mind when helping young people navigate the world of teenage relationships.

1) Work as a family to establish boundaries and values

Ginty Butler reminds parents to expect that as their children approach young adulthood, they will begin anchoring their identity more through their peer groups than within their families. With this in mind, she reminds parents and caregivers that it’s their job to ensure that their children don’t lose their individual sense of self worth in the process.

To help do this, Ginty Butler suggests families establish clear values that each family member agrees on. This can help young people better navigate behaviors and social pressures that may make them uncomfortable. It can also help parents clearly and effectively set boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Ginty Butler suggests making values clear and straightforward. They could be as simple as:

  • We take care of ourselves.
  • We take care of one another.
  • We take care of our belongings.

She also suggests defining “negotiable” and “non-negotiable” areas around behaviors and safety concerns — what you are willing to comprise on and what you’re not. Having clear and established core values and boundaries helps families manage expectations about how they treat people and expect to be treated. It also helps each family member — parent and child alike — feel more empowered to speak out should those expectations not be met.

2) Do the hard things

Empowering your children to have an active sense of self worth and to stand up for themselves and their values means coaching them through how to have difficult conversations and do hard things, like taking a stand against behavior they feel is unhealthy or unsafe. Ginty Butler says that one of the most effective ways to do this is to do these things yourself — to model that behavior.

“Sometimes you have to make decisions that don’t feel good and make your children upset with you,” Ginty Butler says. “You have to be able to tolerate that.” However, demonstrating this resilience sets an example for your child to do the same in their own lives, as well as to:

  • set boundaries in their relationships
  • understand what they’re willing to accept and what they’re not, and what feels okay to them and what doesn’t
  • assert their expectations in any relationship they’re in and feel able to tolerate the consequences of that assertion.

Tips for getting it done

Ginty Butler says one of the most important things a parent or caregiver can do is create an environment where problem solving happens together.

“It can help to role play or talk out how your child can approach a situation that goes against your core values,” Ginty Butler says. And when troubling situations arise, she suggests avoiding a power struggle and bringing the conversation back to your core values.

“It can be as simple as saying, ‘These are our shared values that we agreed on. And this behavior isn’t fitting with them. How should we go about fixing it?’”

Learn your child’s language

Ginty Butler suggests finding the way your child feels most comfortable talking to you. Whether it’s texting through Snapchat, chatting while in the car, or setting up a specific time to talk, meeting your child where they’re most willing to engage with you can lessen the likelihood they push you away. And it can lead to more productive, honest conversations.

Give yourself grace

A strong connection and an understanding of their values help young people –– and adults –– create and nurture healthy, safe relationships. But teaching through example can be easier said than done. Many adults still struggle with setting their own boundaries and navigating toxic relationships. Ginty Butler reassures parents that’s okay.

“One of the greatest things we can give young people –– and ourselves –– is a sense of surety in our core values,” Ginty Butler says. “I think it’s great when parents can share with their children that it’s a work in progress for all of us.”

Learn more about how the Division of Adolescent Medicine/Young Adult Medicine cares for a wide variety of conditions and concerns specific to adolescents and young adults.

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