Therapist offers tips to cope with peer pressure


School days can be filled with fun activities like football games, band practice and outings to movies with friends. But they can also be a time when some students try to talk others into doing things they wouldn’t normally do on their own.

Emily McColloughAccording to Emily McCullough, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities in Fort Dodge, experiencing pressure from peers can start in elementary school, around 9 years old and can continue into young adulthood.

“Signs that a student is being affected by peer pressure may include sudden changes in a variety of things such as friends, activities, attitude, grades, quality of work, appearance and interests,” she said. “Parents may notice some of these things, and teachers may be in a position to notice others. Parents can ask their child’s teacher if they see any of these signs.”

Some examples of peer pressure, noted McCullough, include pressure to wear certain clothes, bully others, not care about schoolwork, cheat, smoke, drink, engage in sexting (sexual words and pictures sent through cell phones), shoplift or have sex.

Strategies for students

The therapist offered some tips for students who might be faced with peer pressure.

“Decide what you believe about things before you are in that kind of a situation and be confident when you respond in the moment,” McCullough said. “A peer who is pressuring you is more likely to back down if you sound sure of yourself. Sounding sure of yourself can include making eye contact, using a firm, clear voice, and not stuttering around.”

To place even more emphasis on their stance, a student can repeat themselves. Partnering with a friend, she noted, is also a good idea so the two can decline an illicit invitation together and/or walk away together.

Just like so many other things require practice, McCullough suggested rehearsing saying “no” and coming up with clever statements to turn down peer pressure.

Some potential responses to peer pressures include: “My parents would freak out and not let me see you guys for a month if I did that.” “I have to get to practice now.” “I changed my mind. Forget it.” “I have a feeling we’re going to get caught. I’m out.”

“See through their pressuring tactics and remind yourself that ‘everyone else’ is not actually doing it, and your friend will probably still be your friend if you don’t do what they’re pressuring you to do,” McCullough said.

With the prevalence of technology, the therapist would like students to remember it is very hard to keep a secret.

“The things you do and say can so easily be photographed, recorded or saved by others,” she said. “So if you succumb to pressure and do something you regret, it can come back to haunt you in more ways than one.”

Tips for parents

For parents, McCullough suggested they help their children think ahead about scenarios they may face.

“Brainstorm responses with them that could be effective in turning down pressure from peers,” she said. “Be sure to listen more than suggest – they are the ones who know the most about their peer culture and they are more likely to follow a suggestion that they creatively thought up rather than one you suggested. Sorry parents, you know it’s true.”

Parents can even role-play peer pressure situations and practice ideas in order to refine them.

“Help your kids develop good self-esteem through unconditional love and genuine compliments,” said McCullough, who sees clients one day a week at Fort Dodge Middle School. “A kid who feels good about herself is much more likely to feel strong enough to turn down a negative request from a peer.”

Parents can give their children an excuse they can use with friends. She suggested telling them it is okay to mention you and your rules to make it easier for them to decline a forbidden act. For example, a student may say, “My dad said he’d take away my car.”

The therapist also suggested that parents get to know their kids’ friends, stay involved in their lives and keep tabs on things such as their online activities and text conversations.

“You may discover pressure they wouldn’t have told you about,” McCullough said. “Then have a calm heart-to-heart about it.”

Plus, parents should serve as role models for healthy decision making.

“Talk through your decision making processes aloud when you can to show that you struggle with wanting to impress others and be accepted, but ultimately choose to stand up for what you know is right,” she said.

Have grace and stay calm, the therapist insisted.

“This suggestion can’t be emphasized enough. We all make mistakes and learn best from them in a calm, thoughtful environment,” McCullough said. “A display of anger from a parent only reinforces for a child that ‘they don’t understand’ and ‘the issue is my parent, not my behavior.’”

Pathways Program

If parents are concerned about their child, but uncertain if more help is needed, Catholic Charities offers the “Pathways to Hope and Healing” program.

This program entitles all students in the diocese, whether they attend a Catholic or public school, a free mental health assessment with a licensed professional counselor. At the end of the assessment, the therapist will make recommendations and provide the parent options.

Parents can call their local Catholic Charities office and ask to schedule an appointment for their child.

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