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TODAY contributor
updated 7/23/2008 12:27:38 PM ET 2008-07-23T16:27:38

Q: My 11-year-old daughter wants to be one of the “cool” kids. “Cool” to me looks like rudeness and bad behavior. She’ll be in class with them when school starts, and I fear they are a bad influence. How can I keep her away from them?

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A: As you know, peer pressure is a big influence at this stage, which is normal. Kids goad on other kids to engage in all sorts of behavior. This can be dangerous or undesirable, like smoking, drinking, lying, shoplifting, skipping class and being mean to the uncool kids. Or it can be positive, like joining a club or sports team, or trying out for the school play.

It’s hard for a preteen to turn down a chance to join the cool group. Then again, some negative behaviors are worse than others. So prepare yourself, and your daughter, before school starts. Here are some strategies:

Encourage your daughter to have lots of activities.
When kids are idle, that’s when they hang out. Fill her time with productive activities, which gives her a social outlet and limits unstructured time for getting into trouble.

Be a source of information.
Remind your daughter that actions have consequences: bad grades, car accidents, interference by police. Tell her that you’re worried about the long term, and open a dialog: “I’ve seen this happen; what do you think?” “In this situation, what would you do?”

Don’t lecture or nag.
Too many reprimands may well drive her into the crowd you are trying to avoid or incite her to be spiteful and rebellious.

Give her coping strategies.
In order to appear cool, your daughter might find it hard to get out of situations she’s uncomfortable with. “Just say no” rarely works. Prepare her with ways of distancing herself from a tough situation while still saving face. Some examples:

  • Humor: “Beer tastes like dishwater. I’d rather have a Diet Coke.”
  • Flattery: “You are so cool — let’s shop for clothes instead of hanging out. I’d love your advice.”
  • Shifting the blame: “My mom would kill me if I smelled of cigarette smoke. It’s not worth it.”

Decide on a code word.
If your daughter can’t talk openly, the code word will signal she needs you. For example, if she calls and says, “Mother, it’s me,” instead of, “Mom, it’s me,” you will know she can give only yes-no answers or needs you to pick her up.

Bail her out.
No matter what the circumstances, bail her out without punishing her. For example, let her know that no matter how late it is or how busy you are, you will pick her up if she needs you. It will both save her from potentially difficult situations and improve the bond between you. And don’t complain when she does it. This is what she should be doing. Give her positive reinforcement — “I’m glad you called instead of riding with a drunk driver and ending up in a ditch.”

Know her friends.
Maybe the kids you are worrying about are actually terrific. Sometimes that green hair tops a very sweet person. But if they are a fast crowd, you are on tougher ground. Make a point to meet their parents. If you aren't comfortable with their values, be alert to subtle opportunities to point out long-term consequences:

“I see that Sally smokes, which isn’t surprising because her mom smokes. And with that terrible cough, I’d be worried about lung cancer.” Or “Sally seems to drink a lot. Her parents do, too, and it seems they are having trouble holding down jobs because of that.”

The idea is to plant the idea in her head that there are repercussions for short-term choices.

Pick your battles.
If you fight over every hairstyle and piercing, your daughter will tune you out when it comes to the big stuff.  Kids this age need to express themselves and rebel, so if your daughter isn’t doing anything harmful in the long run, let it go. If she dyes her hair blue but doesn’t take drugs, you are doing a pretty good job.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line:  If your daughter does have less-than-desirable friends, there are ways to minimize their negative influence.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,”  was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.

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