“It’s hard. It’s really difficult. I don’t know how to say no to stuff that my friends are doing.”
Despite knowing about the risks of unsafe behaviors related to drugs, alcohol and sexuality, teens and adolescents still feel the powerful pull of peer pressure. At the most vulnerable stage of development in terms of self-acceptance, appearance, social status and bodily changes, puberty presents even more pressures that come from the desire to be “one of the gang.”
“My friends sometimes make decisions that I know are not okay. I know the difference between right and wrong, but I feel weird being the only one not doing something. I sometimes go along with stuff that I don’t believe in - that feel uncomfortable - things that I know might get me in trouble.”
At this age, both boys and girls are discovering who they are and how they fit in. Peer acceptance plays a major role in shaping the self-esteem of many teens and standing out can be frightening. Many teens tend to follow behaviors of their friends, mimicking mannerisms, speech patterns or choices that they regard as attention getting, comical, risky or new. This tendency coincides with the rapidly developing, but not yet developed, pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is the hotbed of bad decisions for teens; the impulse-challenged part of our anatomy that isn’t fully formed until the 20s.
Teens need to learn how to outsmart themselves.
How Can We Help Teens Problem Solve When They Are in These Risky Situations?
Many teens find themselves regretting sexual activity AFTER it happens. Often they state that if they knew what to say at the time, they would have never done it. The consequences (such as unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections) can be catastrophic for the teen.
Teens can exercise ways to get out of situations where they feel uncomfortable. I call these “NOT NOW” exercises. These skills can be individualized for each teen as their situations, settings and cultural norms will differ. This helps teens feel empowered and in control and changes their experiences with peers. Establishing power in their actions paves the way for more confident, thoughtful and safe experiences.
Here Are 8 “NOT NOW” Tips:
- Identify a “safe person.” This can be a parent, guardian, adult relative, older sibling, family friend or friend’s parent who is told in advance that they are the safe person. They should be a responsible adult, preferably with transportation, who can be reached 24 hours day, for any reason, no questions asked. Their number should be in your teen’s phone. This increases the likelihood that your child can leave a situation safely. Often, teens like to send a code phrase over text or establish a plan ahead of time (like a pick-up place).
- Come up with an excuse to leave a situation. Some teens like to say, “I’m going to get food.” Others might say they have a family emergency and someone is picking them up.
- Have a quick diversion tactic. A quick diversion is simple. Some examples are, “I feel like I’m going to throw up” or “I have to use the restroom.” This doesn’t mean that sexual activity will happen in the future, but these are simple sentences that help kids get away from the heat of the moment so they can rationally think.
- Spend time with friends and potential romantic partners in non-threatening settings where there isn’t as much peer pressure. Public areas such as school, cafes, parks, malls and sporting events are great places to relax, laugh and spend time getting to know friends. Teens decide if they can be themselves and when the time comes, it becomes easier to say, “No thanks” and do their own thing.
- Opt out. Choosing not to engage in activities will not mean the end of a teen’s social life. People and groups move quickly through experiences and emotions. As a wise person once said, “This too shall pass.”
- Listen to inner voices. Kids shouldn’t ignore a nagging feeling that something is not right. This also is helpful when friends are acting inappropriately. Tell teens to use words that can help diffuse situations, such as “Ew, that’s really disrespectful,” “I don’t like that word,” or “You had better stop. That’s not ok.” Have them practice with you at home!
- Stop, think, evaluate, act. This exercise is common for anyone dealing with a stressful or important decision. No decision should be made immediately. I tell teens that if someone is trying to talk you into doing something, it’s not for your benefit, it’s for theirs. The steps are:
Stop the activity.
Think about what’s happening and whether it’s okay.
Evaluate the potential consequences, risks and dangers.
Act in a way that is safe and healthy.
- Know when to get emergency assistance. A safe person can be helpful but sometimes he or she cannot be reached. Kids can call 911 at any time. This can be for them self, a friend, acquaintance or group where there is a risk of danger or harm. If someone is being harassed, hurt or abused, tell them not to wait or hesitate. Things can change in a minute.