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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your teen’s success and health. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and helping your teen learn about ways to deal with peer pressure provides a perfect opportunity.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the process of carving out their identity, and their measuring stick is often their peers’ opinions and approval. Peers influence what’s acceptable and what’s popular. The teen years introduce greater risk taking opportunities, which could involve alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors. Peer pressure can consume your teen with worries about “fitting in.”
Teens ages 15-19 require risk taking in order to exercise their responsible decision-making abilities. Teens also gain a deeper social awareness so that they begin to see from the perspective of their peers. This newfound empathy can create social anxiety, and they may make incorrect assumptions about peers’ impressions of them adding to a heightened sensitivity. They may feel like they are “on stage” being judged by classmates regularly. And, their need to belong becomes even greater as they assert their independence. These challenges arise as a normal part of your teen’s development.
Yet, anyone can face challenges in dealing with peer pressure. “Why can’t I go to my friend’s party?” you may hear from your seventeen-year-old when you know the party will have alcohol. Underage drinking may be a temptation for your teen, and alcohol can have a major impact on their brain development.1
The key to many parenting challenges, like dealing with peer pressure, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Peer Pressure?
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old feeling pressured by their friend to break curfew or your nineteen-year-old drinking alcohol at a party to fit in with their friends, your teen’s increasing need to take risks, increasing opportunities for risk taking, and their desire to seek approval from their peers can become challenging. Establishing a trusting connection along with teaching your teen vital skills will help them resist unhealthy risks and make responsible choices.
Today, in the short term, helping your teen deal with peer pressure can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationship;
- trust that you can support your teen through their many changes;
- a sense that your teen is better equipped to manage the stress that comes with this age; and
- confidence that you’ve prepared your teen to stay safe.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen
- builds capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships that will serve them for a lifetime;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making;
- understands ways to deal with peer pressure without compromising boundaries or losing friendships; and
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing.
This five-step process helps you and your teen work together to establish boundaries and support in dealing with peer pressure. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about dealing with peer pressure related to alcohol by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to peer pressure so that you can address them. In gaining input, your teen
- attempts to assert their independence while still a dependent in your household;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for following rules and guidelines);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
- Find a time when your teen feels like talking and you are not pressured. Driving in the car is ideal (when you don’t have a time pressure) and your teen will feel less “on-the-spot” because you are not looking directly at them. You might ask:
- “What are you and your friends most interested in trying that’s new and different?”
- “Where do you like to hang out with your friends?” Teens need spaces and places where they can be social, and if they don’t have them, they’ll create them. Offer opportunities for healthy hangouts by offering your home and being around to provide snacks, games, and supervision or suggest safe public hangouts like the ice cream shop or the recreation center.
- “Are there times when your friends are doing things you don’t want to?” Everyone experiences peer pressure at one time or another, adults as well as teens. But, your teen is not as experienced in dealing with it. It’s critical that they feel a sense of belonging to a group of friends. If they fear being cast out of that group because they won’t do what everyone else is doing, they’ll have a much tougher time making a good choice.
- Listen for interests and ideas your teen might have for trying out healthy risks. If you observe your teen taking a new interest, create opportunities to experience those risks in safe ways. Does your teen love animals? Could you volunteer in an animal shelter together or offer to take a group of friends to try it out together? Does your teen love nature? Could you drive friends to a local park for a hike to a scenic view? Offer plenty of healthy outlets for exploration, and your teen and their friends will have less of a need to seek out unhealthy ones.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Though your teen has likely been exposed throughout childhood to adults drinking, you may or may not have had specific conversations about the role of alcohol. Your teen may be well aware that underage drinking is illegal, but the “whys” of that law are equally important now for them to understand as they formulate their own sense of right and wrong. It is also helpful to know how alcohol impacts a teen’s growing body and brain differently from adults and your own family’s values around drinking that can add weight and importance to this valuable discussion.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
- Learn the facts together. Yes, read this next section with your teen! This is not information that is widely known (but it should be). So, become informed about the impacts of alcohol on a teen’s brain development together.
- Researchers are finding that the teenage years may be a particularly vulnerable time for brain development and the adverse effects of alcohol. Because teens are undergoing a major brain reconstruction from learning from play to the more logical thinking required of the adult years, these changes paired with alcohol use can get in the way of normal development.1 In fact, experts claim that during adolescence, brains may be more vulnerable than in any other time of life because of this major brain development that is occuring. Consuming alcohol prior to the age of 21 can lead to
- problems with memory recall,
- reduced language competence,
- problems with academic achievement,2
- reductions in abstract reasoning (which aids empathy and perspective taking),
- reductions in future planning skills, and
- problems with creative problem solving.3
- Less than half a glass of alcohol in one hour is enough to change your personality and your judgement. That small amount will suppress the functions of the frontal lobe of the brain controlling inhibitions, self-control, judgment, and concentration. At this stage, even a very small amount of drinking increases your chance of health risks including unnatural death as a result of an accident or fight.4
- Knowing what the laws require can help provide a starting point for discussion. Laws are rules society agrees are the basics for civility and health. That does not mean that they provide the added values needed to make smart choices. For that, families need to further discuss the facts and their family values. Montana law states that:
- Those under 21 years of age may drink alcohol provided by the minor’s parent or guardian in non-intoxicating amounts in a private location.
- Those under 21 years of age may NOT drink alcohol in a restaurant, bar, or public location where alcohol is served.
- Intoxication is measured at no more than 0.05 blood alcohol concentration or the point at which there is physical or mental impairment. That level can be achieved with between one or two standard drinks in one hour.
- Those under 21 years of age may not purchase alcohol.
- There are severe penalties for drivers under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs. For those under 21, a “DUI” is given for a 0.02 blood alcohol level.5
- Find a time to talk when your teen seems particularly curious, talkative, and receptive. Start out with questions rather than answers. “Why do you think we have laws about drinking? What about alcohol do you think is important for teens to know?” Take time to discover what your teen’s perceptions are and what they already understand!
- Co-create a plan. Talk in a non-judgemental way (no blaming or naming) about some choices your teen might have for leaving an unhealthy situation. Ask:
- “What truthful excuses can we come up with together to leave the situation?”
- “What code can we establish (use your cell phones), so you can call me when you need me to pick you up — no questions asked?”
- Discuss values. Instead of diving into a discussion about alcohol, first you may want to talk about health and healthy development. You and your family may want to consider the following questions:
- “What do we do to keep healthy (diet, exercise, preventative doctors visits)?”
- “How do food and drinks fit into keeping your body healthy?”
- “What about the role of medicine? Do you take medication? For what and why? What is your attitude about medicine? What is it important to take it? When do you want to avoid taking it? If you take medication, what side effects have you experienced?”
- “What are the many substances that alter your body and brain?”
- “How do those altering substances fit into a healthy lifestyle?”
- Then, you might consider the following: “What do you and/or your partner or other family members believe about the role of alcohol in family life and with teens? What do you want your teen to learn?”
- Change the conversation when your young adult turns 21. If you have a 21-year-old, change the conversation to focus on choices about the healthy and safe use and non-use of alcohol. The quick facts above are still important. But, now consider how your rules and guidelines will change and what will remain the same. For 21-year-olds living at home, leaving their location, having an exit plan with a friend, and communicating when they’ll come home all still apply. As you discuss facts, values, and social engagements, discuss how you (as an adult) ease out of social pressures when you don’t want to drink. Also, be sure to discuss moderation and review that it is not safe to drive after drinking.
Let your teen know that feeling peer pressure is normal. Everyone feels it at some point. The trick is knowing when to go along and when to bow out gracefully.
Did you know that giving anyone under age 21 sips of alcohol sends a clear message that authority figures feel drinking is acceptable for them? These teens are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs at a younger age and more frequently with friends than those whose families who did not permit sipping.6 Researchers advise not allowing any drinking even on special occasions for those under 21.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your support for your teen in dealing with peer pressure about alcohol can offer opportunities for them to practice new skills if you seize those chances. Offering your teen practice to resist peer pressure in the safety of your supportive home can mean the difference between a teen who will feel prepared when challenged or a teen who is caught unaware.
With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with your support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen faces peer pressure.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a teen’s sense that they can respond to friends and peers with courage and conviction. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Practice assertive communication. Communicating to others that you have both physical and emotional needs and boundaries is challenging for adults. Teens frequently do not have the language or the practice needed to be able to assert their needs. But, this kind of communication is necessary if they are going to stand up to the crowd and refuse high risk substances. So, practice in small, simple, everyday ways.
- In your child’s younger years, you needed to speak to other adults on your child’s behalf, but now they are old enough to speak for themselves. Be sure you step back and give them that chance in both private and public settings.
- When your teen comes to you with an interpersonal problem whether it involves a friend or a teacher, reflect back feelings. Ask what choices your teen might have in communicating with this other person. Perhaps offer supportive language that will help them broach the topic. Then, show your confidence that they can manage their own communications and work through their own problems.
- Offer conversation starters like “I-messages” to communicate needs in ways that do not place blame or harm anyone. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you ask me to drink, because I don’t want to.”
- Social pressure can be one of the strongest forces a teen faces in their lives. Not only does your teen lack experience in dealing with this kind of pressure, these pressures can also offer high level risks that either look appealing, or terrifying, or both. Teens are in the process of defining their identity for themselves, which includes what they believe is right and wrong. Though adults have faced friends offering them dangerous substances before, teens are encountering these challenges for the very first time (without wanting to appear that they are facing “first times”). Offering your teen practice in the safety of your supportive home can mean the difference between a teen who will feel prepared when challenged or caught unaware.
- Tell stories of your own or your teen’s ability to think and act outside the social box. In other words, how has your teen made a decision on their own that hasn’t been popular but was right for them? Celebrate that sense of confidence and independence. These stories will begin to further shape your teen’s identity as one who is able to think and act for themselves.
- Notice when you yourself feel peer pressure and call it out. Let your teen know how you felt when you didn’t have time to bake for the school bake sale but were pressured into doing it anyway. Be sure and note the times when you were able to say “no” and especially how you did it kindly while preserving the friendship.
- Respect a genuine “no” response from the teens in your household. Discuss the reasons why they are refusing. Consider whether or not their decision is based on healthy boundaries. How do you know? You might consider if the decision to go ahead with what you want would harm anyone including your teen? Be sure to consider emotional harm such as working against your teen forming their own identity? If so, then your teen is setting an important boundary. Notice that key step forward — your teen is demonstrating healthy relationship risk taking!
When your teen comes to you with a peer pressure challenge, reflect back their feelings. Ask open-ended questions to prompt their thinking. Show your trust and support that they can solve their own problems with reflection.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve learned together the key facts about alcohol consumption, how it can impact a teen’s brain development, and the legal requirements. You’ve practiced resisting social pressures together and shared success stories. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions. “How are you feeling about your friends? Do they treat you well? Do they pressure you? Are there times when your friends or other classmates want you to do something you don’t want to do?”
- Reflect on outcomes. “Seems like you are worrying today about your friends and their impressions of you. Often it helps if you talk about it. What’s going on?”
- Stay engaged. Be ready to talk when your teen is eager. It can feel like their willingness to talk comes at the most inopportune moments. Remember that these are precious windows of opportunity for you to learn about what’s going on in their lives and to offer support.
- Engage in further practice. Talk about times when you don’t want to go with the crowd. Perhaps the school PTA made a decision and you weren’t supportive. How will you keep your relationships but also make responsible decisions for yourself and your family that may not go along with the crowd?
The challenge of this age range is that they may initiate a fight if they feel you view them as not fully competent. Be sure you are empowering them to think through consequences of their choices. Be there if they need you but only if they ask for your support.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I notice you really reflected on whether or not to go with your friend to that party considering all of the potential risks. That’s really taking responsibility and thinking through consequences!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you check in on time, I will let you stay at your friend’s house longer” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You checked in with me like we agreed. I appreciate that!”
- Notice! Times when your teen chooses something different than what the crowd is doing are times to recognize. Stopping to reflect on relationships and considering consequences and how their decisions will impact others are the fundamentals of responsible decision making and deserve recognition.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition is a tool to promote positive behaviors. It needs to happen along the way. Find small ways your teen is making an effort, using self-control, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Teens are constantly seeking new adventures and the thrill of trying out something new. Keep this in mind when considering celebrations. Could you try rock climbing as a family? When your teen is meeting their academic goals, that’s worth celebrating. When your teen is meeting their friendship goals, that’s another opportunity to celebrate.
Teens are trying to define their identity as independent people. Comments that point out how they are acting in ways that are self-sufficient will help them see how their decision making is defining who they are and what they value.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.