Teaching Kids to Say No (not to us, of course)

In my last post, which was about the top 9 reasons kids misbehave, I mentioned peer pressure. I hate it, you hate it, and we all know it can lead good kids to do knuckle-headed things. Still, as parents, we don’t do a great deal to help our children cope with it. I have written other posts that are relevant to this topic as well (Yikes! Sex, Dating, Booze, and Drugs; Kids Want Limits. Really, They Do.) I promised in my last post to talk about teaching kids refusal skills, so here goes.

Just in the past couple of weeks, these are some of the sticky situations that my child clients have found themselves in:

  • 14-year-old Wendy buckled under the pressure to drink wine coolers at an 8th grade graduation party and was caught by the hosting parents
  • 16-year-old Malcolm, who experiences severe motion sickness, got talked into going on a roller coaster by friends who made fun of him
  • Pam, a college-bound 18-year-old, worried that she is pregnant after finally agreeing to have sex with her boyfriend of two years
  • 12-year-old Lorena did actually refuse to participate when a group of girls sent a mean letter to a friend at overnight camp but is convinced that the girls signed her name to the letter anyway

Each of these young people is bright, kind, and generally well-behaved. Every one of them knew what the consequences might/would be before they caved in to the peer pressure. They all knew that they could and should say no. Here are some of their comments to me:

Oh, I knew what would happen if I got caught. My friends making fun of me would have been worse. – Wendy, age 14

It was so stupid to go on that ride. They just made fun of me afterwards for throwing up. – Malcolm, age 16

I was just really, really tired of saying no. – Pam, age 18

I refused to be a part of that letter, but I’m still going to be blamed. – Lorena, age 12

This is really painful stuff for young people. The pressure to conform, to go along, to be a part of the action, simply to belong can be tremendous. This pressure is most intense during the developmental stages that are largely centered around identity and interpersonal relatedness. Kids are sorting out who they are as individuals and who they are in relationship to others. Ironically, it is the very same developmental challenges that influence kids to apply pressure to their peers as influences them to yield to pressure from others. Think about the above examples. Wendy’s and Lorena’s friends wanted them to be part of their schemes because the greater the number of participants, the less they have to question their choices. Pam’s boyfriend was probably feeling some pressure, internal or applied by his friends, to lose his virginity. In Malcolm’s case, each member of the group likely felt forced to be “brave” or to be made fun of. Not much of a choice for these kids, is it?

What we teach our children about peer pressure is really just an extension of what we teach them about values. We don’t want our children to say no to everything that their peers encourage them to do, right? We want out children to listen to their gut (also known as their inner voice, their conscience, their moral compass) and to follow their own values around right and wrong. Think about Lorena and the difficult choice she made to refuse to join a group of girls in bullying a friend. Lorena’s parents were very, very proud of their daughter. Yes, they were glad that she had not gotten caught up in the middle school drama, but they were most proud of her reasons for refusing. She refused because “the letter was mean and the only purpose of it was to hurt my friend’s feelings.” When I asked how she knew she should refuse, she talked about how guilty she would have felt thinking of her friend alone at camp reading that letter. I asked her what would have been so bad about the guilty feeling, she answered “that feelings means I’ve done something wrong.” Lorena’s story illustrates one of the most important reasons to stand up to peer pressure:  if friends feel that they have to pressure you to do something, it is because they know it is wrong. In that moment, they are not acting as friends.

There is another important reason for young people to resist pressure from peers to engage in behaviors outside their comfort levels: learning to resist pressure to engage in relatively minor behaviors when you are young prepares you to do so in the future when the behaviors become much riskier. Think about Malcolm. Aside from the obvious discomfort of riding a roller coaster that terrified him and the vomiting that followed, this was somewhat of a no harm-no foul scenario. Now project into the future a few months. Malcolm will have his driver’s license. How prepared will he be to say no to speeding or violating curfew or piling seven teenagers into his car for a joy ride? Think also about Pam. Perhaps the outcome for her would have been different if she had had more opportunities and more success saying no to boys earlier on. The more experience kids can get in saying no to pressure  to engage in relatively minor misbehavior with minor consequences, the better prepared they will be to say no when the behavior is serious and the consequences major.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every opportunity to make a choice about your behavior is an opportunity to define who you are as a person. I frequently ask my young (and adult!) clients, “Is that who you want to be?” or “Which choice is consistent with who you are? For example, I want Wendy to think about whether sneaking alcohol aligns with her view of herself as a level-headed girl with excellent judgment. I want Pam to consider whether having sex with her boyfriend because saying no is too hard is consistent with her values around relationships and intimacy. Of course, young people (and adults!) will make poor choices, will behave in ways that do not align with their values, and will, at times, buckle under pressure from peers. It’s all part of the learning process; it is these challenges to a young person’s identity that help to make their sense of self more secure.

Okay, that about covers the why to refuse to give in to peer pressure. What about the how? As you talk to your children about resisting peer pressure, it is best to encourage clear, direct assertiveness skills. The basic formula for assertive communication goes like this:

  1. Use “I” statements.
  2. Label specifically the behavior that is upsetting you.
  3. Request a behavior change.

Assertive refusals for each of the scenarios described above would sound like this:

Wendy: I am not comfortable drinking your parents’ wine coolers, and it upsets me that you all are pressuring me. Please stop giving me a hard time and let me decide for myself.

Malcolm: I am really annoyed that you keep pressuring me to go on a roller coaster that I know will make me sick. Please just drop it and I will wait for you guys to ride it.

Pam: I feel really hurt that you keep pressuring me about sex when I have told you many times that I am not ready. Please respect me enough to accept my refusal.

Lorena: I am angry that you are writing this letter and that you want me to be a part of it. I will not bully my friend and I want you to stop pressuring me to go along with your mean plan.

If adolescents lived in a kinder, gentler world, then I would say that honesty, combined with assertive refusal skills, is the best policy. That would mean Wendy telling her friends something like this: “You guys can drink the wine coolers if you want to, but I won’t. We’re not old enough, we aren’t allowed to, it’s stealing, and we will get into trouble if we get caught. For all of those reasons, I think it’s wrong.” To which, her friends would reply, “We understand perfectly. You should do what you think is right. We respect you for that.” Unfortunately, that is decidedly not the world that many of today’s young people experience.

While I don’t like to encourage young people to be dishonest, my experience over the years helping adolescents deal with peer pressure has convinced me that, used very judiciously, small deceptions may be the next best way, after assertive refusal, for them to keep themselves safe while also saving face. The latter may not seem very important to us as adults, but believe me, very little rises to greater importance for tweens and teens. Given the choice between personal safety and group acceptance, many kids in many different situations will choose the latter. In the example of Wendy and the wine coolers, here’s how a small deception could help her make a good choice without risking social rejection: she could excuse herself to use the bathroom, call a parent to pick her up, and then return to her friends and say something like, “My mom just called. Something has come up and I have to go home.”

Teach your children why and how to say no. Model saying no and use role plays to allow them to practice. Listen closely when they explain why saying no may not be such a simple thing to do. Anticipate situations where peer pressure is likely to arise and help them prepare for the various scenarios you can envision. If it helps, offer to be the bad guys. Let them blame you for having to leave a party early, for not having access to a car, for not being allowed to go to a coed sleepover. When absolutely necessary, tell them it’s okay to stretch the truth to keep themselves safe. Know that they will sometimes allow their desire to fit in to overpower their good judgment. When that happens, take it for what it is: an opportunity to learn and grow and strengthen their values and their commitment to make choices accordingly. Lean in to the tough conversations about bullying and alcohol and drugs and sex. Keep in mind that peers will pressure them; it is essential that you prepare them to cope with such pressure mindfully and effectively.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Teaching Kids to Say No (not to us, of course)

  1. Pingback: Top 9 Reasons Why Kids Misbehave | What Kids Want Us to Know

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