From bullying to eating disorders, children of all ages have been known to go to extreme lengths to gain the approval – or at least the attention – of their peers. It’s the same all over the world, and at its most serious, can escalate to drugs or crime.
So what can parents do to keep their kids from succumbing to the lure of acceptance? Child psychologist Dr Ron Clavier, author of Teen Brain: Teen Mind, recently spoke in Dubai about the link between brain growth and a child’s emotional development.
According to Dr Clavier, one problem many children face is that their brains have not physically developed to the point that they understand the consequences of their actions. ‘Consider, for example, the toddler who cannot be convinced that the short, fat glass holds the same amount of milk as the tall, skinny glass,’ he says. ‘Until he grows enough brain cells, the toddler is physically incapable of understanding this concept.
Just as the toddler is undergoing a period of growth, so, too, is an older child. In fact, the brain development that happens right up to the teen years is just as vital as the physical changes happening at the same time.’
When you find yourself getting frustrated with your child, remember that a certain amount of brain growth is necessary before emotional development can happen.
A difference between toddlers and older children is that the latter are usually able to grasp concepts they have experienced themselves. Educational guru Jean Piaget called this level of development the ‘concrete operational period’ – most people reach this stage in their ‘tween’ years.
If your child doesn’t understand why you worry about their bad behaviour, Dr Clavier suggests offering a familiar scenario. ‘Ask them how they would feel if they saw a child they were responsible for running towards Sheikh Zayed Road.
They’ll most likely respond that they would feel afraid, panicked and guilty,’ says Dr Clavier. ‘They would understand that they would stop the child from running into the road even if the child cried and protested.
Then explain that, in the same way they know more than the toddlers they babysit, you, as an adult, know more than they do, and so when you see them making those potentially disastrous decisions, you feel just as nervous.’
Another way to suppress the effects of peer pressure is to be a good role model yourself, but the argument, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ holds very little water. ‘I don’t think it’s fair for adults to tell me to be polite and stop having a bad attitude when they scream at total strangers in traffic,’ says 11-year-old Lindsey Barnett of Jumeirah.
As a parent, you must display good behaviour and take responsibility for your actions if you expect your kids to do the same. Also, remind your elder children that, whether they like it or not, they are setting an example for their younger siblings.
Good behaviour can be encouraged by giving your children a chance to prove themselves. Offer household chores and set curfews, letting your child know that the more they get right, the more trust they will build with you. ‘For those real concrete thinkers, written contracts are a good way of getting the point across,’ says Dr Clavier.
Also, remember that resisting peer pressure may take practice. ‘I was lucky that my parents gave me the freedom to prove that I could be my own person when I was in high school,’ says former Dubai American Academy student Robert Smithson. ‘A lot of my friends had a really hard time going to college, and started smoking and drinking because they had never been faced with those temptations before.’
Dr Clavier also recommends keeping children occupied, encouraging them to develop an interest in a team sport or activity. ‘Part of the problem with peer pressure is that children look to be part of a group, but activities such as sport, art, music or dance will provide a ready support system of friends,’ he says. ‘There is an opportunity to build the sort of self-confidence that naturally repels peer pressure. They will be part of a group that keeps them out of trouble.’
Finally, all good behaviour should be rewarded. It’s easy as a parent to not say anything about a child’s behaviour until you need to tell them off, but pointing out their successes is just as important as their mistakes. Underneath all those rolled eyes and heavy sighs, most children just want to please their parents, but often feel they don’t know how.
Look for opportunities to tell them that they’ve done a good job or that you’re pleased with their behaviour and you’ll likely be rewarded with more of the same.
Are your kids looking for approval in all the wrong places? Try seeking help from:
The school guidance counsellor: With first-hand knowledge of your child’s classmates, these professionals often have a unique perspective on the factors that may be tempting your child to go astray.
Human Relations Institute: With a wide array of workshops, support groups and counselling options, this internationally recognised clinic offers a holistic approach that may be just what your child needs.
For more information, go to www.hridubai.com or call 04 365 8498.