Understanding Peer Pressure

Pressures once reserved for the teenage crowd have also filtered all the way down to some primary-school classrooms. If the trend continues, girls age eight to ten may show the same symptoms of stress and poor self-esteem that older tweens have manifested in recent years. In general, there is still a big difference between the psychology of girls in the eight-to-ten and eleven-to-thirteen groups, but the gap is narrowing.

Younger Tweens: It's Probably Not Peer Pressure

When your eight-to-ten-year-old wants you to let her do or have something, she may well toss in some statements about what other kids get to do and what other parents give their children in hopes of convincing you. This may be a good moment to stop and reflect on your rules and limits, but if you feel pressured to give in so that your child can go along with the crowd, or if you deliver lectures about the evils of conformity, you have probably misunderstood the issue. Tweens don't typically become obsessed with fitting in until they are older.

Seeing what peers are getting or doing may well have implanted the seed of desire that has blossomed into longing, but peer pressure doesn't usually become an issue until later in the tween years. An eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old usually wants to have what her friends have and wants to do what they do because she thinks it would be fun, not because she is trying to fit in. If a school dance is being held and you don't believe in dances for young tweens on principle, your daughter's upset probably isn't from fear that missing out will destroy her socially, although if she's already a social outcast she might hope to make some friends by attending. Rather, she probably wants to go because a dance sounds like great fun to her. If so, scheduling another activity she considers great fun might overcome her disappointment.

The same principle applies to clothing. Young tweens have difficulty comprehending the subtle differences that make things look too babyish or too old for them. They tend to have more general reactions: A particular outfit is either “pretty” or “yucky.” Of course, fashion taste is dictated by what children are exposed to, so from that standpoint seeing what other tweens and teens wear does have an influence. If your young tween wants an outfit that you consider unfit for someone her age, her statement that “everybody else” gets to wear such clothes is probably an attempt to figure out why you think these particular clothes aren't appropriate.

This is the time to explain that some people think it's fine for anyone to wear anything at any age, but you think it would look silly for a three- year-old to wear stiletto heels, even if the shoes were very pretty, just as it would look silly to see a woman wearing baby clothes! Similarly, although some parents might think this outfit looks fine on anyone because it's so pretty, to you it looks like it is for older girls and will be appropriate for her in a few years.

Conformity among Older Tweens

As the tween years progress, peers' opinions become ever more important. By age twelve, too many girls define their self-worth almost exclusively in terms of what their peers think of them — or in terms of what they think their peers think of them. No matter how much emotional support and reassurance you try to give your daughter at home, you may feel impotent to combat a peer group that seems to be catching her more tightly in its grip with each passing day.

Your daughter may now write off her special talents and strengths as unimportant or even try to hide them unless she is sure of peer approval. If she feels certain that her peers would not approve, she may try to hide differences that have long been a source of pride. Just to fit in, she may forgo loved activities for pastimes she doesn't like or even believe in. It is common for older tweens to become obsessed with wearing clothes they think would get peer approval.

Don't write off your daughter's emotional swings to puberty. Whether or not hormones are a factor, failing to take her seriously will erode your relationship and cause her to look for support elsewhere. Even if you are certain that hormones are involved, she needs to learn to ride the emotional waves without damaging her relationships by upsetting and alienating others.

It is easy to lecture tweens about the importance of individuality, but only a very exceptional youngster can remain centered in the face of blatant peer cruelty. Students at middle and junior high schools can be vicious. School cultures vary, but in some of the more emotionally taxing ones, many youngsters have proudly walked onto the stage for a talent show and lived to regret it. While doing an admirable job of twirling a baton, dancing a ballet, playing the piano, singing a song, or reciting a poem, they are assaulted by hoots, catcalls, and spit wads. If such mortification isn't bad enough, the mocking jeers that assail many tweens in the halls at school the next week may convince them that their faux pas was horrendous and will never be forgotten. Close friends may keep their distance for fear that association will sully their own reputations.

At a stage of life when a day seems like a year, a tween may be convinced that she has alienated everyone forever. The fact that she never fathomed such an outcome can make her fearful of committing some other accidental social blunder. Girls don't even have to undergo such a public humiliation to be traumatized. Seeing others being victimized is enough to drive home the message that they simply must fit in.

Don't shame your tween for wanting to fit in. Just keep reminding her that when her peers mature, their values will change and they'll be more tolerant of differences. Offer hope that by continuing to develop her talents and intelligence, others will come to see her for the wonderful woman she is becoming.

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