Fitting In and Peer Pressure
In middle-childhood, children participate in extended social networks of friends, often organized around a school or other institution that groups children together. The relationships within these naturally forming social networks are hierarchical in nature, meaning that they are not all equal. Some children are more popular and sought out in these groupings, while others struggle to be included at all. Children sense that an important part of their happiness is linked in with how they are perceived and treated by the other children in their network, and so they tend to worry a lot about how their social position within the network. This is another way of saying that many children are concerned about how others perceive them, and therefore are subject to intense peer pressure. They are often willing to do most anything - even self-destructive things - in order that they can become well-regarded and sought after by other children.
Parents cannot and should not try to remove children from the pressure of needing to fit in. This process of fitting in is the crucible in which children's social skills are learned and practiced. Children who are kept away from this struggle will not learn vital social skills they will need in order to negotiate the adult social world (where these skills become necessary to maintain employment or advance in one's career).
Parents can do two things to make the process of fitting in a little easier and safer for children. The first is to provide a standing invitation to have an open conversation with children about their worries and fears regarding peer relationships. The second is to help children grow a strong sense of self-esteem by loving, encouraging and protecting them, providing them with appropriate challenges and teaching them positive coping and decision-making skills. These two approaches will help decrease the likelihood that negative peer pressure will tempt children to make self-destructive decisions. Please see our Nurturing Children's Self-Esteem article for more information on this important subject. Please refer to the earlier section on disciplining children in middle-childhood for suggestions about how to help children learn good decision-making and coping skills.