Your Teen And Peer Influence

"I'm at a loss with my son. Now that he's a teenager, I'm really seeing that he's swayed by what his friends think. Some of the things I can manage my way through - like when he wants a new pair of roller blades because all his friends have that kind, or when he wants to wear that new style of pants that slinks down around his hips. But I'm not sure what to do about other things - like when he wants to go away to his friend's parents' house, and this is a friend that I really don't approve of, I think he's a terrible influence."

One of the scariest aspects of our children becoming teenagers is our fear about how their peers will influence them. Will they choose negative values instead of the ones we've tried so mightily to instill? Will their peers lead them to risky behaviors? How can we handle the defiance, the clothing and hair styles, the "gadgets" they "have to buy?" In a minute we'll examine how we can influence the typical teen, but first let's take a look at what motivating factors might drive our teen to be influenced by his friends rather than adhering to his family's ideas and values.

At adolescence, a child's physiological, emotional and hormonal processes come together for the purpose of achieving one thing - independence from his family. This is his primary purpose. All of his actions, thoughts and feelings are driven by this purpose. For most teens, what this means is that they will have two goals: 1) To prove that they are individuals in their own right, and therefore different from their parents and 2) To leave home. It's important to fully understand how crucial it is for your teen to achieve these goals. To her, it is almost a life and death matter. Imagine how you would feel if you were trapped in a corner, facing a lion. The intensity with which you would fight to save your life is similar to the intensity a teen feels in protecting his primary purpose. Keeping this in mind, you must also know that the things you say and do may, and most of the time do, directly contradict your child's primary purpose. For example, if you voice an opinion, even one that your teen would agree with, she's likely to either disagree verbally, or not say anything at all because she needs to prove that she's different from you. This can make life incredibly difficult. You're likely to view her as obstinate, defiant and just plain ornery. Her "unreasonableness" may cause you much frustration, which she will pick up on, and which will only serve to "prove" her theory - that she's different from you because you clearly don't understand her.

When your teen feels misunderstood by you, he's more likely to seek out the advice, lifestyle and values of his peers.

In order to continue to have input into your teen's decisions without going against his primary purpose, especially the decisions which involve your values, you must put aside your lectures, your advice, your admonitions. You must face your fear and you must, at all costs, seek to communicate that you understand him, and respect his wishes to become an individual and ultimately leave home.

This is probably the single most difficult piece of advice I offer to parents, because it challenges our instincts which tell us to protect our teen from the risks that life presents. And actually, it's not protection that we should eschew, but the way in which we go about protecting our teens that is problematic. Most parents, in an effort to offer protection, try to control their child. They make rigid rules which only make teens struggle more to free themselves.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that you suddenly become permissive parents and let your teenagers run wild. Rather, I'm proposing that the way in which you can best influence your teens is not through rigid rules and strict punishments, but through working to develop a good relationship with them. When your teen experiences a good relationship with you, she's more likely to be influenced by you because she loves and respects you and values what you say. When you let her know that you respect her primary purpose, she'll no longer struggle against you to achieve it. Suddenly you'll both be working towards the same thing - that she become a unique individual who's different from you, and that she eventually leave home.

To strengthen your relationship with your teenager, keep the following points in mind:

* Seek to understand him. Communicate understanding of, and respect for, his primary purpose.

* Avoid lectures and advice, they only block communication further, and help your teen prove to herself that you're a doddering old fool, all of whose values should be rejected.

* When he voices radically different opinions and values, don't react immediately. Communicate curiosity and encourage him to talk.

* Ask questions about why certain things are important to her. When she talks about body piercing in enthusiastic tones, refrain from judging her. If she senses that you're judging her, you ensure pierced body parts.

* When you absolutely must communicate contradictory values, own them. Don't use generalizations like "body piercing is bad." Try using what Mary Pipher calls the "sandwich technique." First, start with something positive, like, "I so appreciate that you feel comfortable sharing your ideas with me. It means a lot to me." Then insert your value in the form of feelings, perhaps saying "I actually feel a little concerned about body piercing because of infections, and because of scarring." End with something positive like either asking him in a non-judgmental way what he thinks about those concerns or reiterating that you appreciate his ability to share his ideas with you, even though you may think differently.

* Find ways to enjoy her. If she won't go out in public with you, rent a movie that she's mentioned she likes and sit and watch it with her.

* Write him notes which express your love for him, and which indicate the areas in which you're proud of his growth.