Posted: May 22, 2014 7:00 AM
 
We generally think of peer pressure as being something kids deal with during the teen years, but that may be old thinking. There is evidence of peer pressure beginning as early as 9 years of age — here’s what to watch for.
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Think peer pressure is the stuff that high school is made of? You might be surprised to hear that peer pressure actually influences kids way earlier than that. A University of Maryland study may make parents and teachers more likely to be on the lookout for cliques, biases and peer influencing that can happen as early as elementary school.

Wake-up call for parents

Think you need to watch for peer pressure issues with your middle or high school student only? Researchers have concluded that peer pressure affects our kids way earlier than previously suspected — as early as elementary school. They term their new line of research "group dynamics of childhood," and claim their findings are a wake-up call for both teachers and parents as to the peer pressure that exists among the younger students. Their research delved into what kids think about group behavior, and whether or not group behaviors are fair, and they note that conflicts involving group loyalty and fairness have often been viewed as "older child" behavior that didn't extend to the elementary school playground. "This is not just an adolescent issue," shares Melanie Killen, a University of Maryland developmental psychologist who led the study. "Peer group pressure begins in elementary schools, as early as age 9. It's what kids actually encounter there on any given day," she adds. The study appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Child Development.

When peer groups go bad

Should parents be concerned about their elementary school kids who are involved in a relatively defined peer group? Peer groups that begin to form in elementary school actually help children's development by providing positive friendships and relationships, and a system of social support, according to Killen. It starts to sour when the group begins to exert undue influence and imposes unfair standards on outsiders or members of other groups.

If your child is showing a level of anxiety about being with friends, this may signal issues and conflicts within their peer group relationships, and they may need some guidance from parents.

"Children may need help from adults when they face conflicts between loyalty to the group and fairness to outsiders," Killen says. "They may be struggling to 'do the right thing' and still stay on good terms with friends in the group, but not know how." If your child is showing a level of anxiety about being with friends, this may signal issues and conflicts within their peer group relationships, and they may need some guidance from parents. Even at this early age, children will show a streak of moral independence and a willingness to stand up to the group, but the consequences can be long-term. "Parents and teachers often miss children's nascent understanding of group dynamics, as well as kids' willingness to buck to the pressure," Killen explains. "Children begin to figure out the costs and consequences of resisting peer group pressure early," she adds. "By adolescence, they find it only gets more complicated."

Parents can help guide that moral compass

What can we do? For the parent who thought peer pressure was the stuff high school is made of, these early entries into complicated social relationships can come as a surprise. The study suggests that these findings overall show that with age, children can not only apply their understanding of fairness to their social groups, but also recognize what makes the dynamics of a group often complex.

Although difficult, kids this young realize that while it may not be popular in the group, there may be times when standing up to their peers is the right thing to do.

Study findings show that with age, children can apply their understanding of fairness to social groups, and recognize what makes group dynamics complex. Although difficult, kids this young realize that while it may not be popular in the group, there may be times when standing up to their peers is the right thing to do. Parents can encourage their kids to think about what's truly right by continuing to talk with their kids and encourage an open-ended dialogue about friends and situations that happen at school, or in after-school situations like team sports or day care.

Talk to your young kids often about fairness, equity and friendships. Ask them "what-if?" questions and work through scenarios that not only place your child as part of the group, but as an outcast. The younger you can encourage them to have empathy and understanding for their peers, the better.

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