BEING A BIG SISTER
Peer pressure is an interesting issue, especially in adolescents. What makes some teens succumb to negative peer pressure and others able to maintain a stance against it? In essence it’s a combination of the teen’s values and self-esteem.
For young people who have had troubled lives peer pressure can be an especially difficult problem. Many children in care have learned not to trust adults, or have not been in a situation where they have formed a close relationship with an adult. They may not have grown up with a set of values instilled in them from parents or other role models. This leaves them especially vulnerable when they reach adolescence, when theyare trying to form their own set of values and find their own identity and often turn to their friends in search of answers. Children who have grown up in care may also have a lack of self-esteem or feel that they don’t belong or fit in and their peers provide what they are missing by accepting them into the group.
When I first met Mary she talked a great deal about her friends at school and I must confess I was a little alarmed at the tales of smoking on the school campus and a certain amount of drug dealing, although Mary was always quick to tell me she would never be involved with drugs. Apparently the school she attends is quite violent. There are a lot of gangs and have been a few knifings. We talked about why it was difficult for her to avoid the bad influences and the fights and she told me she would have no friends if she didn’t join in to a certain extent.
She was new at the school that year, having moved schools several times, and she had no close friends in the area because it was a new neighbourhood to her. I tried to put myself in her place and could appreciate why she wanted to fit in. She wanted to belong and make new friends. Apparently there were very few youths at the school who didn’t belong to a ‘gang’ of some sort, whether it was a small group of girls who smoked during breaks, or a large number of ‘harder’ youths who picked fights whenever they could.
I knew from chatting to Mary’s housemother that Mary had been involved in a few fights with other girls in her school. One day I asked her what caused the fights. Predictably it involved who was going out with which boy and who was accused of flirting and ‘stealing’ him from someone else and so on. What interested me was that, as Mary told me the stories, it became obvious that she did not approve of the incidents. She called the other kids ‘those children’ and it was apparent that she was often instrumental in trying to stop the fights erupting.
Over the next few months Mary confided in me that she really had no time for the ‘gangs’ but wasn’t sure how to extricate herself without losing friends. We discussed ways of doing so. I asked her what had happened when she stopped smoking. Had her friends ostracised her? Mary told me that she still went with them to the smoking areas but harangued them about how unhealthy it was and how much money it would cost them if they became addicted for life. I smiled to myself as I heard her repeating my own words to her a few months previously. Humour is such a useful tool in dealing with people and whenever there’s a need to put across a point I try to do so with humour. It seemed that Mary’s saving grace was that she was doing all her haranguing with a great sense of humour! She managed to tell her friends these things without lecturing and with a lot of joking thrown in.
I was bginning to realise that Mary already had a good set of values and fortunately was mature for her age. Over the weeks she began to be more and more confident about standing up for what she believed was right. One weekend when she was out with a few of her friends from school, the girls insisted on going along to an illegal bar, where they began drinking alcohol. Mary told me how she had told them that she was not going to be responsible for them just because she was the only one not drinking and how she phoned her housemother and arranged to be picked up nearby.
I was astounded because it showed how tremendously more confident Mary had become since I first met her and how she now felt able to stand up to others. I was very proud of her. I believe a number of factors had led to this change. She had become well settled in the home and had an excellent relationship with the house parents. She had also become close friends with another girl in the home who did not attend her school. She had been seeing me regularly, knew that I would not let her down and that she could talk to me about anything and she was beginning to realise that she could excel in her schoolwork.
Shortly after this Mary told me about a lesson they
had at school when they had been discussing peer pressure. At the end of
the lesson some of the other kids started accusing Mary in front of the
“Mary’s always pressuring us, sir,” shouted out one youth. There was a shouted agreement from others in the class. The teacher was surprised.
“What does she try to make you do?” he asked.
Amidst general laughter and good feeling they told him how she was always telling them not to smoke, not to take drugs, not to bully other people, not to have sex etc. etc.
I was amazed to hear about the way she had managed to become such a positive role model. Not only was she standing up for what she believed, but she was managing to do it without alienating herself from her group. In fact they respected her for it, even if it didn’t always stop them doing what they did (although I hope it made some of them think about it!).
All this happened last year. This January, at the
beginning of the school year, I picked Mary up from the home. Sshe ran
out and excitedly flung her arms around me.
“Guess what! Guess what!” she exclaimed grinning widely.
That morning there had been an announcement at school: Mary had been made headgirl.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to www.bbbsi.org