By Shanna Garza, MD | Contributor
As our teens grow into middle school and high school, they are often aware of their friends and classmates experimenting and trying out risky behaviors. These behavior choices may be normalized and are commonly seen as part of the high school experience. However, we know experimenting with vaping, drinking, smoking weed, sexuality, promiscuity, inappropriate social media use, pornography, and other risky behaviors can have serious consequences. Many teens feel pressure to fit in or just go with the flow with what their friends are choosing to do. How should our teen children handle these pressures and stay safe and healthy in the process?
Learning to Say No
First, I counsel families and parents to talk directly to their teens about the types of risky choices they may see with their peers and at school. It’s helpful to remind your teens that their parents were also teenagers once and understand what pressures they might feel. Teens should feel empowered and able to say no. This seems simple, but parents can work with teenagers in role playing on how to say no in different challenging situations. Teens should learn how to say no in a clear and firm way and make it non-negotiable. Teenagers need to recognize when their friends’ behaviors are outside of their comfort zone, feel empowered to state their position clearly to their friends, and offer alternative choices that help maintain their friendships on their terms.
Character Driven Choices
Building character helps teens understand what they value, what is right for them and ensures that their choices reflect their values. Families can help teens build strong character through open discussions and through teaching by example. When teenagers consider how their choices reflect who they are and what they believe, they ensure that their behaviors are in line with their character. Much of peer pressure is internally driven—wanting to fit in, not wanting to look too young, wanting to look cool and more mature. Character driven choices help guide teens to stay true to themselves.
Stay Safe and Save Face
In our Adolescent Medicine practice, we often advise teenagers to blame their parents in order to save face when confronted with choices they know are risky and unsafe. Examples might be, “My mom will ground me if she finds out” or “I’ll never get to go to another party if my dad finds out.” We counsel our teen patients to have a “code word” with their parents to help get them out of risky situations. For example, if a teen gets to a party and sees that others are smoking marijuana, she might send mom a text stating, “I forgot to feed the dog.” Mom knows that this is their “code word” and that she needs help to remove herself from a bad situation. Mom might even reply, “Get home right now. I told you that you had to do that before leaving.” Mom might even say, “I’m on my way to pick you up.” This helps teens stay safe and save face. For this strategy to work, parents must recognize the strength and character it took for their teen to reach out to parents and stay safe. This is a time for parents to say thank you for reaching out, and not a time for parents to punish or ridicule teens for being in a potentially dangerous predicament.
Find Healthy and Safe Friends
In adolescence, teenagers grow to identify more with peers than family. Peers may have much larger influence on how teens think and how they act. Having more than one group of friends helps teens navigate away from friend groups that are behaving in risky ways. If our teen children only have one friend group, they may be very isolated when they don’t go along with their friends’ risky choices. I often ask my teen patients if their friends help them make healthy choices. And if their parents like their friends. Both are good measures for teens to think about how their friends help them stay true to their character and stay safe.
Every parents’ wish is for their teenage children to know what is right for them, to act in a way that reflects their character, to have friends who help them stay safe and healthy and to feel empowered to say no when necessary. Open communication, role playing, and being available to help our teens get out of risky situations all help them feel ready to manage peer pressures.
Editor’s Note: Shanna Garza, MD works at Girls to Women and Young Men’s Health and Wellness. For an appointment, call 972.733.6565 or visit the practice website at www.gtw-health.com.