What were you thinking?” “But didn’t you tell the kids it wasn’t right?” “You did what?!!@!” Are you concerned that your kid always seems to go along with the crowd? Does she have a tough time speaking up and letting her opinions be known? Have you noticed that your child can be easily swayed to do what the other kids want? Some kids may call him a Wimp or a Scaredy Cat, your terms may be more along the lines of submissive, follower or even push over. This may not seem such a big deal now, but peer pressure gets nothing but tougher as kids get older. After all, if he has a tough time saying “no” to the tamer dilemmas of younger kids, fast forward your concerns to the kinds of wilder, scarier issues he may face later. And there is cause for some concern. A Time/Nickelodeon survey of 991 kids ages nine to fourteen revealed 36 percent feel pressure from peers to smoke marijuana, 40 percent feel pressure to have sex, 36 percent feel pressure to shoplift, and four out of ten feel pressure to drink.
Here’s the good news though: assertive skills can be taught to kids. Though it is never too late, the sooner parents start boosting this friendship skill builder, the greater your child’s confidence will be in social settings, and the easier you’ll sleep. Here are a few strategies from my book, NOBODY LIKES ME, EVERYBODY HATES ME, you can use to help your child buck the negative peer pressure and stand up to peers.
Bring the issue into the open. If your kid is suffering from a lack of assertive skills, it may be very hard for him to talk about this problem so take the lead. “I noticed during play group today Johnny told you to throw sand in the sink, and you did it. You know better. So let’s talk about why you went along.” “You know Rene’s house is off limits, but you went along with the group anyway. You have to learn to stand up to your friends and do what you know is right.”
Share your beliefs. Parents who raise assertive kids who can stand up for their beliefs don't do so by accident. They make sure their children know what they stand for. “In our family we don’t watch violent movies. Plain and simple. So tell your friends you can’t go.” “I don’t care if all your friends use four-letter words, for you that’s forbidden.” “The next time a friend dares you to smoke a cigarette, just stand up and walk out. You need to stick up for what you know is right. I know how much you hate smoking.”
Stop rescuing. If your role has been apologizing, explaining, or basically “doing” for your child, then stop. You child will never learn how to stand up for himself. Instead, he’ll forever by relying on you.
Model assertiveness. If you want your child to be confident, assertive, and stand up for his beliefs, make sure you display those behaviors. Kids mimic what they see.
Teach how to say no. Ask your child to choose phrases he is most comfortable using. “No” can be said alone: “NO!” It can also be followed by a reason: “No, it’s just not my style.” “No thanks. My parents would kill me.” “No, I don’t feel like doing that.” “No, I don’t want to.” “No. I have to get home and I’m already late.” The child could suggest an alternative: “No. Let’s think of something else.” “Nope. How bout we go to the skate park instead?” Tell your child it’s not his job to change your friend’s mind, but to stay true to his beliefs.
Teach confident body language. Push-over kids usually stand with heads down, shoulders slumped, arms and knees quivering, and eyes downcast. So even if he says “no” to his friends, his body sends a far different message and his words will have little credibility. So it’s crucial to teach your child assertive body posture: hold your head high, shoulders slightly back, look your friend in the eye and use a confident, firm tone of voice. It will help your child see what the confident body posture looks like so she can use it herself. So role play with your child the “confident look” and the “hesitant look.” Then encourage your child to be on the look-out for “confident” or “hesitant” posture in other people. Look everywhere: at the mall, on the playground, even television and movie actors. Soon your child will instantly be able to spot confident posture and copy and use it himself.
Use a firm voice. Emphasize the tone of your child’s voice is often more important than what he says. So tell your child to speak in a strong tone of voice. No yelling or whispering. Be friendly but determined. Just tell the friend where you stand. A simple “No” or “No, I don’t want to” is fine
Reinforce assertiveness. If you want to raise a child who can stand up for his beliefs, then reinforce any and all efforts your child makes to be assertive and stand up for his beliefs. “I know that was tough telling your friends you had to leave early to make your curfew. I’m proud you were able to stand up to them and not just go along.”
Hold family debates. The best way for kids to learn to express themselves is right at home, so why not start “Family Debates” or if you prefer the more gentler-sounding approach: “Family Meetings”? Start by setting these five rules: 1. Everyone is listened to. 2. No putdowns are allowed. 3. You may disagree, but do so respectfully. 4. Talk calmly. 5. Everyone gets a turn. Topics can be the hot button issues in the world, in school or right in your home. Here are just a few discussion possibilities: house rules, sibling conflicts, allowances, chores, curfews, parent-set movie restrictions. “Real world” issues could include: reparations, the Iraq War, the draft, lowering the voting age, legalizing drugs. Whatever the topic, encourage your hesitant child’s to speak up and be heard.
Don’t tolerate excuses. You’ve been working on these skills, but your child is still agreeing to do things she knows are wrong to go along with the group such as going to sneaking into a R-rated movie or using bad words. If this happens, be sure to take clear action to reestablish your rules and your child’s need to stand up to peer pressure.
It’s not always easy to buck the crowd. Everyone wants to be liked. But for your child’s own self-confidence, independence and future success in life, it’s important he learn to stand up to a friend. So continue to encourage each and effort he makes, and help him practice the skills of assertiveness until he can confidently use them alone. And above all, remember simple changes can reap big results. So don’t give up.
Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally renown educator, motivational speaker, who has presented keynotes and workshops to over one million parents and teachers on four continents, and is the recipient of the National Educator Award. Dr. Borba serves on honorary board to Parents magazine and has appeared as a guest expert on Today, The Early Show, The View, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, and NPR. She is the award-winning author of 20 books including Parents Do Make a Difference, No More Misbehavin’, Building Moral Intelligence, Don’t Give Me That Attitude!, and Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me (all Jossey-Bass). For more information about her work see www.micheleborba.com.
© 2006 by Michele Borba. Please contact for permission to reprint.