You are on your way to meet a friend for lunch when your cell phone rings. The caller ID says it is your daughter’s school. You panic and think of all the things that could have gone wrong. Is she sick? Did she fall? Is she sobbing over that B- grade on the math test?

When you answer, you realize it is the principal’s secretary asking— more like demanding— that you come to school to speak with the principal and address a disciplinary issue. What? It can’t be! Your daughter is an angel.

Turns out, your sweet, innocent 1st grader and four of her friends harassed another student so badly that the child had to go home due to her injuries. This isn’t a fictitious scenario to prove a point. It recently happened to a friend of mine.

Most people think that peer pressure is narrowly defined as teens tempting others to drink, do drugs and engage in sexual activities. However, the true meaning is much broader. Merriam-Webster defines peer pressure as “a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one’s age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them.” This still sounds as if it applies to middle schoolers. What is peer pressure for young children?

Take a moment to think of your children. Did your daughter ever change her hairstyle to match the hair of her best friend? Did your son ever come home from preschool covered in magic marker? When you asked why, he said “All the other kids were doing it.” These are mild forms of peer pressure. Nevertheless, the underlying insecurity that motivates a child to change his or her mind due to the influence of one’s peers is the same for severe responses to peer pressure.

In the early years, a large part of school is learning how to negotiate your social relationships. The desire to feel accepted can be immense for some kids, leaving them more susceptible to pressure others or be pressured than children with a greater self-confidence and less of a desire to fit in. Grappling with peer conflicts is a process. The practice doesn’t have to start in high school. In fact, it rarely does.

Karen, a New Rochelle, New York, resident, received a letter from school because her daughter Marlene mockingly changed a classmate’s last name from “Greene” to “Pink.” Marlene mentioned the moniker to a friend who laughed. That was enough of a positive reinforcement for Marlene to continue referring to the child as “Pink,” even though it caused the boy to cry. Marlene is a natural leader, who is still learning how to use her influence and power. As this example shows, peer pressure is not just about the child who follows the crowd; it’s also about the one who leads it.

Melanie Sinks, an elementary school principal in the northeast, advises children that “not everyone can be a leader, but you don’t have to be a follower.” Unfortunately, peer pressure to conform is commonplace at all scholastic levels, including preschool. Sinks says she has seen “the nicest kids sucked into being mean.” 

Similarly, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that as many as 80 percent of middle school students are involved in bullying and peer pressure. While there are not many statistics concerning peer pressure in elementary school, such behavior does not suddenly surface in the 6th grade. The good news is you can start to build your child’s self-esteem, teach him or her what peer pressure is and— beginning at age 4— show your child how to follow a positive path.

Tips to Combat Peer Pressure in Young Children

Discuss age-appropriate topics related to peer pressure before a specific need arises.

When your children first go off to school, chat about general concepts regarding people’s differences and tolerance. Also discuss the importance of expressing one’s individuality, rather than following the group. Ask your child questions like “Does everyone have to look the same to be a friend or play in the group?” and “If everyone was teasing someone, what would you do?” Keep the conversation simple and age appropriate. As your child ages, role play issues that might arise to guide him or her to make the best choices.

Ask your child specific questions about school.

Instead of the mundane “How was your day?” pose open-ended questions. Some good questions include: “Which kids are you having lunch with?” and “What are they like?” as well as “When do you feel the most pressure from your peers?” If you ask the right question in the right way, you will learn much about your child’s influences and be prepared to help him or her deal with social pressure.

Consciously develop empathy in your children.

Discuss family values like being nice and caring for others. Help your children learn empathy by reminding them about a time when they were left out or picked on. Reinforce kindness in many different ways to help children internalize the value. Even though they are young, children can feel pain, discomfort and sadness, especially in response to how others treat them. This coaching is invaluable in teaching kids to cope with difficult feelings.

Encourage individuality in thinking, dressing and acting.

While you may cringe when your daughter comes down for breakfast wearing plaid pants with a floral shirt, resist the urge to make her change. Expressing her own style and learning to deal with the potential fallout at school are great lessons in preventing your daughter from being pressured in the future.

For the follower: If your child tends to follow others, reveal the importance of making personal decisions. Let your child know it may be tempting to follow the cool or funny classmate. But, children should think about what they do beforehand and how it might make someone feel, such as if the most popular child in the grade leads a group taunting session of an often teased child. Also, try to build your child’s self-esteem. Studies have shown that a child with a high self-esteem is unlikely to follow others.

For the leader: If your child is the leader of the pack, discuss the personal responsibility that goes along with that. Being a leader is a strength that should be praised. However, explain the power a child has when others appear eager to follow his or her actions. Teach your child that it is great to lead other kids in a game of tag or encourage the class to do something nice for the teacher, but it is not acceptable to bully, tease or hurt another child.

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