“But Johnny says swear words, so why can’t I?!”
“But Emily gets to stay up until 10:00!”
“But Mike talks back to his parents, and he doesn’t get in trouble!”
Do these comparisons sound familiar?
Friends can heavily influence your children’s behaviors and beliefs. As children begin to spend more time at school and extracurricular activities with friends, the more they begin to learn what is accepted and rejected by their peer group. Although you may assert specific guidelines and values in your family, your children are likely to experience varying guidelines and values in their friends’ families. These differences can feel confusing for children as they begin to realize that not every family is the same. They may also feel frustrated when they think that they have more rules and fewer privileges than their friends do. Helping your children make choices that reflect your family’s guidelines and values can be challenging for parents.
Maintaining a balance of empathy and understanding with assertiveness and firmness is key in helping your children navigate their decision-making processes. Here are some Dos and Don’ts.
- Make judgments about your children’s friends and their parents. Making statements, such as, “Emily’s parents shouldn’t be letting her stay up so late!” or “Mike is being a bad boy by talking back to his parents!” is not productive for your children because they do not give your children alternative, positive choices to make. Instead of talking about other families, take the opportunity to discuss your own family’s guidelines and values.
- Dismiss your children’s arguments. It may feel tempting to say, “These are the rules in our family, and that is that!” but taking the time to explain to your children why you have certain rules can help them feel more confident about the rules they follow, which can improve compliance.
- Justify your rules with long explanations. Children may get lost in long explanations. To keep your children engaged, it is better to give simple, concrete explanations with room for questions. (Ex. “In our family, the rule is that when you have a problem, you use a nice, calm voice. This is because we show respect and love to each other. What questions do you have?”)
- Reach out to parents of your children’s friends if necessary. Some behaviors can be destructive (i.e. friends who are hitting, using inappropriate language, bullying, etc.). Contacting parents to discuss your concerns may be an important step in decreasing negative influences for your children. There may also be instances in which you need to set boundaries between your children and certain peers. If this is a step you decide to take, explain to your children in a gentle and firm way without placing blame or judgments on other families. (Ex. Instead of “You can’t play with Emily anymore. She’s a mean girl,” try “When we are around friends who hit and use swear words, we are not safe. Who are some friends that use nice words that you can play with? Who are some friends that use mean words and hit? I want you to play with friends who use nice words and a safe body.”)
- Take the opportunity to talk about your family guidelines and values in a gentle and firm way. Instead of saying what not to do (Ex. “We don’t talk back.), talk clearly about what to do (Ex. “In our family, we use nice words and a calm voice when we have a problem”) and why (Ex. “This is because we show each other respect and love.”). You can help your children explore and understand what your values are by asking open-ended questions (Ex. “What does respect mean?”) and problem solving (Ex. “How can you show respect when mommy says something you don’t like?”). Express understanding and gentleness by encouraging your children to ask questions if needed. At the same time, maintain firmness and confidence that your family’s guidelines and values are important and constant.
- Practice making positive choices with your children. Role playing is a fun way to help your children practice what to say and do when they encounter specific instances at school, on the playground, or on play dates. (Ex. “What can you do if your friend says something mean to you?”)
- Praise your children when they make positive choices. Be specific with your praise. Instead of “You are such a good boy,” try “I love that you used your nice words with your brother. You are doing a great job showing respect.” Using specific examples of your children’s behaviors that reflect important family values can help your children understand and feel confident about their family’s guidelines.
What have you tried to help your children who are negatively influenced by peers? What has worked best for your family? Please share with us!