Parenting Solutions: Helping Children Know When It's Important To Fit In … and When It's Not

Some children have a hard time balancing the desire to adjust to peer-group behavior with the need to draw the line when urged to join in inappropriate activities.

A 14-year-old recently wrote advice columnist “Dear Abby” (Abigail Van Buren) asking for help. “I have friends who like to drink and do drugs. While I have no interest in getting caught up in that stuff, I don’t want to lose their friendship. They know I won’t hang with them when they’re drunk or high on something…Abby, I’ve grown up with these kids. They mean a lot to me.”

That young person knows when it’s important to “fit in” and when it’s not. The letter writer is aware of the vital distinction between wanting to retain friendships and engaging in inappropriate activities in order to do so.

For children, particularly those of middle-school age (11-14), fitting in is a balancing act. Some may be naturally blessed with solid common sense, but most need help to know when it’s important to adjust and when it’s not. Here are ways parents and other significant adults can guide young people to fit in with peers while knowing where to draw the line.

Cultivate a child’s willingness to express feelings, thoughts, and opinions. A vital aspect of healthy parenting is working to keep open lines of communication so that a young person will have the willingness, courage, and integrity to express feelings, thoughts, and opinions. “What kind of environment produces children who have the courage to express themselves? Nonjudgmental parents who do not censure every thought,” says Dr. Beverly Neuer Feldman, Ed.D., in her book Kids Who Succeed. “Show respect and appreciation for what your children contribute to family conversations. Avoid ridicule, teasing, and overcorrecting as responses…your children won’t feel free to share their thoughts with you if they feel they are always being graded by you.”

Listen with your eyes and see with your ears. In her book Raising Confident Boys, Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer stresses that adults who want to respond effectively must fully engage both their eyes and ears in their effort to understand what a young person is communicating. “Listening involves looking just as much as hearing,” she writes. When you “listen with both eyes,” you direct your full attention at a youth. The eye contact facilitates a greater awareness of what is being said and enables you “to read his body language and facial expressions, which will help you interpret any thoughts he may be unable or unwilling to express.”

Adults also should cultivate the ability to “see with both ears,” Hartley-Brewer advises, because a young person’s words can reveal doubts about himself. To help a youth gain a more positive view of himself, Hartley-Brewer suggests that adults

  • listen for, and rephrase, negative self-talk.
  • keep a record of what is said and how often in order to see any pattern.
  • avoid the temptation to deny a child’s self-criticism, which will not have much impact. Instead, repeat often and over time that you see the youth differently, using “I” statements such as: “I see you as someone who…”

Help youths identify options. Young people tend to see things in black and white, often missing the options present in many situations. In her response to the letter mentioned earlier, “Dear Abby” wisely suggested two ways the writer could help her friends. She provided the toll-free number from which the writer could obtain the “Tips for Teens” brochure about alcohol, tobacco, and drugs from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, to help her friends understand the serious consequences of substance abuse. Abby also suggested that the student send a confidential letter to her school principal suggesting that the school sponsor an assembly about drug and alcohol addiction. Like this advice columnist, adults can help youths by pointing out options they may have overlooked.

Accept their friends. Friendships are important to teens who want and need to be part of a social group. The quality of children’s friendships is often a source of concern and irritation to parents, but “More than likely, your children will make wise choices and seek friends who have similar values,” says Dr. Neuer Feldman in Kids Who Succeed. Being openly critical, hoping your concerns will force a child to make other friends, is “a dangerous game,” she says. “Your child may be left with neither her old friends nor the ‘right’ ones. Or she may rebelliously cling to the friends you dislike as a way of asserting her right to independence.”

However, parents should express their concerns when they find something objectionable about a particular friendship, Dr. Neuer Feldman adds. “Express your opinions, but be specific about what it is you object to.”

Think together about solutions for problems. Youths can become so focused on an issue that they fail to identify possible solutions. When your child is facing a painful personal problem, try to think together about practical solutions. The idea behind the approach used by the popular youth column “Kids Helping Kids,” in U.S. Kids magazine, is a good one for families to follow. Youths write in with a personal problem, and several responses are provided by young people.

“I really don’t have a lot of friends,” one person recently wrote. “Actually, I have none. I guess it’s because I’m from another country. I try to talk to others, but they walk away or make fun of me. I always worry. Sometimes I cry. It makes it hard for me to do my homework, read, or do other stuff. What should I do?”

In response, one girl shared her own experience: “When I first moved to my new neighborhood, I didn’t have any friends either. The other kids talked about me, but I kept being friendly…Now the kids on my block are really friendly to me.”

“I’m from another country, too,” another youth responded. “I went to a park near my home and signed up for a running club. I met many new people, and now I have lots of friends. Maybe you can join a club, too.”

Build confidence in your child. One of the best ways to do this is by letting kids know they are accepted. “Parents communicate this acceptance in words—and demonstrate it in their behavior,” says author John Gray, in his book Children Are From Heaven. He cites these as the five “most powerful” messages of acceptance. It’s O.K. to

  • be different.
  • make mistakes.
  • express emotions that are negative.
  • want more (but you don’t always get it).
  • say no (but remember Mom and Dad are the bosses).

Be sensitive to the pains and perils of adolescence. The preteen and teenage years—particularly those of young teens—are among the most difficult and confusing. Young people battle with issues of self-esteem, rejection and ridicule from peers, and adult criticism. Adults would do well to cultivate a profound empathy and sensitivity to the plight of adolescents—who, after all, are just trying to fit in and grow up in today’s competitive world.

Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).

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