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Finding the Positive in Peer Pressure

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By Drew Rothermel, CEO of Origins Behavioral HealthCare

A foursome of teenagers is on the back nine of a local golf club. As they approach a secluded tee box, one pulls a blunt from a pocket and gestures to his friends. “What do you think?” he asks. Not missing a beat, one of the teens looks directly at him and says, “I think it’s stupid. I have zero interest.” The marijuana cigarette quickly disappears.

Peer pressure is a constant in the lives of adolescents, but it doesn’t always have to be negative. One confident teen taking a bold, positive step can have a profound influence on his or her peers.

In our work to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent adolescent alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, we find that peer-led prevention – or creating positive peer pressure – is the most effective prevention strategy we can use. In a study published in the journal “Addiction,” researcher Thomas Valente, Ph.D., and colleagues tracked the outcomes of two youth groups enrolled in a positive peer pressure prevention program. One was led by an educator; the other was led by peers. The research concluded that peer-led prevention efforts aimed at reducing adolescent alcohol and other drug use are about 15 percent more effective than other programs.

As you regularly re-negotiate your relationship with growing children, it’s critical to remember you are not your children’s only influence, but you do want to be their biggest. Focus on mutual respect and participation with your teen. Parents must give respect to get it; demanding respect because you’re “the adult” rarely works. Even when things are difficult, look for opportunities to be your child’s biggest (and most authentic) supporter. The world may yell, scream, post and tweet all kinds of negatives to your son or daughter. Be in their corner, remind them of that every day and keep communication open. They will remember who cares, even if they don’t always show it.

Respecting your teen encourages them to respect themselves, which influences them to be better decision makers. It can help to think about how you would react to a trusted co-worker if they made a mistake or bad decision. Now translate that professional workplace behavior to your home environment. When talking to your teen about a mistake or bad decision, remember how you interacted with your co-worker. Show your teen at least that same level of respect.

Dr. Michael Popkin, founder of Active Parenting, says, “Democracy doesn’t mean you always get your way; it means you always get your say.” While your children still need to hear from you what is absolutely ok, and what is absolutely not, look for ways to give them a voice in family decisions. That builds their self-esteem and provides a sense of belonging and security. Given the persistent headwinds of negative peer pressure most adolescents will face today, it is a confident teen who can stand his ground and say smoking pot is stupid. The mutual respect you build with your teens will help them gain the confidence they need to stand up to their peers for what they feel is right, and know exactly what to do when that wind pushes hardest against them.

Drew Rothermel is the CEO of Origins Behavioral HealthCare with locations in Texas and Florida.