Peer pressure is not something new, it’s a rite of passage during adolescent years. Not all adolescents are able to withstand peer pressure and make independent decisions. The fear of being rejected by peers if they do not conform to the group or peer’s request can sometimes lead to adolescents making wrong choices. As a speech pathologist that work with students with learning differences, I have witnessed many clients that make wrong choices due to peer pressure. Peer pressure is worst for adolescents with mild to moderate learning disabilities.
Some adolescents with learning disabilities may also have problems with flexibility in thinking, planning, managing impulse and prioritizing importance of one’s own actions. Compounded with the issue of learning disability is the issue of physical and psychological changes that occur in adolescent years. Adolescents with learning differences have the same emotional and social needs as any of their neurotypical peers. Just because a child has a learning disability does not mean that the natural transitional period such as external appearance and pubescent shifts will not occur, nor does it mean they will not have interest in the opposite sex. Like all adolescents, adolescents with learning differences also struggle with issues of independence and self-identity, thus leading sometimes to wrong choices.
Adolescents with mild to moderate disabilities are very aware of their differences and want so badly to fit in that they sometime become innocent victims of peer pressure. Imagine your daughter attending a party and being told, if she puts on a certain type of dress it will make her look cool and attractive to an opposite sex. The dress I’m describing has the backside completely ripped, thus showing this child’s bottom. The peers that invited her to the party encourage this child, who can barely walk in heels to strut around as if she is on a runway. You can imagine what happens next. This child becomes the running joke of the entire party, without even understanding and she even laughs along. The peers now pretend to accept her and even nickname her, “Silly….” She is treated as the running joke of the group. Eventually, one of the children shared what was happening with her parents. The parents then shared what was going on with this child’s parent. As her speech pathologist, I had to explain the entire situation to her in a manner I felt she could comprehend. Surprisingly, she said she new all along that they were making fun of her, but that she felt okay with it since for the first time she was hanging out with the popular kids.
Recently, an adolescent I worked with, decided he wanted to climb the popularity ladder. He methodically devised a plan on how he could accomplish this goal. According to this child, the popular kids find things wrong with the unpopular kids, such as being poor, dumb and a having disability. His plan was to create an exclusive club for kids wanting to be popular so he could teach them the strategy of becoming popular. He said that the only condition for students to join his group was to learn how to tease disabled students and the poor kids. According to this child when the popular kids see how great he has become in teasing the poor and disabled students, they will invite him into their popular group. Sadly, this is a student with social disability, who has been teased relentlessly due to his disability. All he desires is to join a clique, hoping this will reduce the teasing.
It is important for parents to create safeguards for them. The safeguards should be discussed as often as possible. The discussion should specifically address what neuro-typical adolescent behaviors and friendships are like. Most importantly help them:
- understand intended meaning in teasing behaviors,
- understand cliques and social relationships,
- identify situations that may lead to their vulnerability,
- learn to think for themselves,
- empower and build confidence.
In my adolescent social skills group, we work on“self identification.” We break down questions such as, “What do you think about yourself? Into four parts as shown below:
- What makes me feel good?
- What do I like about me?
- What would I like to share about me with others?
- What do I want others to like about me?
Teach them that the friendship they form should respect and honor their individuality. As parents we must:
- Encourage our adolescent to understand that even their friends will act differently in different situations.
- Encourage them to speak up if they feel their friends are using them or playing mind games. We must empower them to not conform to peer pressure.
- Teach them to advocate for themselves by using a strong and firm voice to emphasize their choices.
- Teach them that not all jokes are funny. Jokes that make them feel bad or poke fun at others are not jokes, but teasing.
- Teach them to understand that popularity is not that important, but forming close worthy friendship is much safer.
- Teach them to understand the differences between friends and cliques. Don’t take it for granted that because you have said it once that your child will understand or comply. Remember that their peers have more influence and also the media plays a big role.
- Make sure that the friends your teens go out with share same interests and life values.
- Teach them that cliques are controlled by leaders who decide who is “in” and who is “out.” Let them understand that true leaders or friends value all opinions.
- Above all teach them that they cannot allow people to use their personal information as a joke, nor should they allow people to push them around.
If you feel your child needs more support than you are able to offer, it is important to get your child help through a child counselor familiar with the type of disability your child has. I also suggest having your child join a social skills group. Find a group that will not only support your child socially, but actually teach real life conflict resolution and skills that develops, and supports relationships with neurotypical peers.
Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child: New Strategies and Perspectives for Teaching Prosocial Skills by Arnold P. Goldstein and Ellen McGinnis