Q: I have a question about peer pressure for an 11-year-old. A neighbor, also 11, coerced my son to write notes to other girls and boys, signing others' names. The notes said things like "I love you," "let's kiss at recess," and "I want to have sex with you and make babies."
Since my son has never gotten into trouble, this one is a doozy. The neighbor has an older brother, gets into trouble periodically, is a "jock" and popular. My son, after talking with me, felt terrible about what he did and was punished at school. But the bigger issues are that he can't avoid this other boy (he lives across the street) and that my son feels he is unpopular and a "nerd" because of his choice of friends and because he's at the top of his class academically. I'm concerned this will lead to depression. He has shown other signs, like pulling away from us in public. What to do?
A: An important, normal developmental task for pre-adolescents is to separate from their parents and become unique individuals with their own special qualities. In order to do this, kids shift some of their attachments from parents to peers, as well as teachers, coaches, and even sports and media personalities. Pre-teens may see their parents as old-fashioned (or just old!) and criticize them for not being "cool." So pulling away from you in public is neither unusual nor troubling. Still, this is no time for you to abrogate your role as an authority figure. Your son, like all adolescents, needs your support for growth-enhancing experiences and for discipline when he engages in negative behaviors.
You are obviously a caring and concerned parent and correct about your son's being influenced by friends whose values do not reflect those of your family. Some children who doubt their self-worth feel the need to be accepted by the "popular kids." Your son has already labeled some cliques "jocks" or "nerds." Although he is obviously one of the smartest kids in his class, he doesn't seem to value his academic achievement.
What the neighbor asked him to do is totally inappropriate as well as illegal (signing other kids' names). More important, it displays a lack of sensitivity and ethical behavior. Your son needs to stand up to those who put such pressure on him, but how? If he has one or two friends he should be able to form a group with them and determine how they wish to behave when an important decision comes up, such as pressure to smoke, drink, try drugs, or shoplift "to be cool." Have a talk with your son about your families' ideals to reinforce their importance and help him through situations like these.
See if your son's school holds discussion sessions for parents and students to address the negative impact of peer pressure. These can be very helpful. If your son is unable to stand up to negative peer pressure, a mental health professional who deals with teen problems could be very helpful.