As children grow, they seek buddies — people of the same age group that they can relate to and bond with.
As they enter teenage years, friends become an important feature in their lives, often having the power to influence them entirely.
Teenagers copy a great deal from their friends, more than they do family. They might even change their behaviour, appearance or interests to show that they belong to a certain clique.
Experts say that progressive and supportive friends are the way to go, and that youngsters should rely on peers who influence their learning outcome, and their overall lifestyle, in a constructive way.
It is not rare that they may find companionship in the wrong group — the ones who don’t take studies seriously, or think certain subjects are not ‘cool’, or think it is better to dodge class than attend it.
This should be a concern for parents; what kind of peer influence does your child have?
Esperance Mukakimenyi, a disciplinary teacher at Groupe Scolaire Sainte Famille, says that if learners choose friends who believe that education is important, chances are they will embrace that attitude and put more effort into studying and performing well in class.
On the other hand, if a student hangs with classmates who are always distracted in class, do not do class assignments, and rarely study for tests, chances are that student will also eventually follow suit.
“Parents should pay attention to what their kids do and with whom they hang out. By learning who your child’s friends are, you can encourage them to maintain relationships with those who enforce positive study habits,” she suggests.
She says that though difficult, especially at high school level as some teenagers become ‘rebellious’, parents should spend more time getting to know their children and the friends they have, their background and activities they engage in. This should be done in a civilised way. Teenagers should not feel like they are being spied on, or suffocated.
Researchers from Binghamton University and Maine-Endwell High School, New York, asked 160 high school students to fill out a survey asking them to list their best friends, close friends, acquaintances and relatives. The students then received a list of each student’s class rank from junior to senior year.
The results found that those whose friends had a high class rank, had their own class rank rise from junior to senior year. Also, those students who hung out with low-achieving friends saw their grades decrease over the same period of time.
Jean Marie Vianney Habumuremyi, a lecturer at University of Rwanda’s College of Education, argues that while no child is immune from peer pressure, young people do not all respond in the same way. Some are able to resist.
“Thoughts such as ‘everyone’s doing it, why shouldn’t I?’ can influence some kids to leave their better judgement behind as they give in to peer pressure and its associated influences. While you can’t be with your children 24/7, you can equip them with the skills they’ll need to survive the worst aspects of peer pressure,” he says.
How to deal with peer pressure
Habumuremyi says that parents should teach their children to say no to bad situations, though it’s hard to be the one to stand up and go against a group, especially if that group is comprised of friends, classmates, or other peers. As a parent, teach your children how to stand up for what they believe in.
“You can do this by role-playing responses to various situations. This gives children a chance to practice saying no to their peers and explain why they don’t want to get involved,” he suggests.
On the other hand, Dr Alfred Ngirababyeyi, a psychiatrist at Huye Isange Rehabilitation Centre, says when minors choose friendships and peer groups that parents don’t approve of, it can be a challenge to know how to respond as a parent.
“Before going about how to respond, parents should take time to understand what these friendships mean to their children. If a parent takes the hard route and forbids the child to see the friends, this approach could backfire, and the child may continue to see the friends without permission, thus putting themselves at a greater risk,” he says.
Ngirababyeyi suggests that it is important to reduce the number of rules set for a teenager, and instead negotiate more about what is acceptable and how they should behave. However, it is also crucial for parents to keep in mind what the non-negotiable rules are, and the areas where there is need to be firm.
“Talk to minors about the importance of education. Tell them that it is all for their benefit. Focusing on core areas where a parent has full responsibility is the best way to influence the child,” he says.