‘All she wants to do is fit in but I just want her to be herself’

Being accepted by their peers is a big issue for teens, all a normal part of growing up

How do you help teens to be their own person and to just not follow what their friends want? My daughter is just 13 and I think she is easily led by her friends. For example, there is lots of pressure to go to the local disco and to dress up for it. I can sense my daughter is not really that interested but she feels she has to go. Also, when she talks of her friends, she seems to be needlessly putting herself down, thinking their aspirations and wishes are more important than her own. It does make me angry on her behalf, but she can become very defensive if I criticise her friends. I’m not sure what to do to help her.


One of the key developmental goals of the teenage years is to discover your own identity and to learn to make your own life decisions. While the primary influence for young children tends to be their parents, with the onset of adolescence the peer group and outside family influences become stronger guiding forces. During this period, children can shift from idealising their parents’ ideas and values to idealising those of their peers, friends and people outside the family. Fitting in and being accepted by their peers becomes a big issue for young teenagers, all a normal part of growing up. However, parents understandably become worried when they see their teen being negatively influenced by peer groups or just “going along” with peer pressure without making their own decisions (as you feel is happening for your daughter).

How to respond as a parent


Responding in these situations is indeed tricky as a parent. If you come across as judgmental or critical of their friends, this can invoke defensiveness on the part of your teenager and can drive a wedge between you. However, you also can’t simply stand by and let your daughter be taken advantage of or be exposed to unnecessary risk. In responding well as a parent, the key is to strike a balance of supportively helping your daughter make her own decisions while setting some protective rules and guidelines.

Help your daughter to make her own decisions

When your daughter asks for something that you think indicates pressure from the peer group, take time to encourage her to think this through and evaluate it for herself. For example, you might listen carefully to what she is saying, asking good questions such as “who suggested this idea?”, “what do you feel about it yourself?” or “what do you think are the pros and cons?” Be very understanding (rather than judgmental) of her friends and her need to fit in etc – “I know fitting in with the group is important to you” – but also invite her to challenge some ideas. “It’s okay if you wanted to do something different. Good friends should respect that. What do you think?” The goal of the conversation is to help your daughter think through the issues for herself and to help her make her own decisions.

Help your daughter stand up to peers

It is useful to explore with your daughter how she can directly stand up to peer influence. Once again a good way to do this is to gently ask her questions that help her rehearse challenging social situations. For example, you might ask: “Supposing one of your friends asked you to do something you did not agree with, what could you say?” The goal is help her identify concrete strategies for how she might assert herself in peer groups in a way that she feels comfortable with.

Offer guidance and set some rules

It is important to offer your daughter advice and guidance on how you think she should behave and to set protective rules. For example, you might say: “I think you should decide what you want rather than just doing what N wants,” or “why don’t you try something different instead?” Offering examples from your own teen years can help as many teenagers like to hear how their parents sorted these issues out when they were growing up. Sometimes you will have to set rules that your daughter does not agree with. “I’m sorry but I don’t think you are ready to go to the disco this weekend,” and this is crucial to keeping her safe. However, do talk these decisions through with her and negotiate as much as you can with her, especially if she feels strongly about them.

In addition, remember that sometimes it is best to let your daughter make some decisions that you don’t agree with so she can learn to take responsibility. Sometimes she will learn as much from the mistakes that she makes as the successes. The key is to be there for her as she works all these things out for herself. You are there to be a shoulder to cry on when things are hard and to be an encouraging coach to guide her in the right direction.

Encourage your daughter to be part of other peer groups

If you have worries about the influence of your daughter’s current peer group, encourage her to mix with other peer groups in different social situations. For example, she may be involved in special interests such as sports, hobbies or other activities where you could encourage her to socialise more and meet a different range of young people. This will expose her to different identities and to different influences and that can counterbalance those of her current group of friends and help her decide what matters most to her. You could also encourage her to take part in new social groups that encourage young people’s personal development, such as joining the scouts or taking up the personal challenge of participating in An Gaisce awards or other activities that teach her about being her own person.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a course on Helping Children Overcome Anxiety starting on Monday, February 6th. See solutiontalk.ie for details. Next week he starts a biweekly column on anxiety and children and young people in Health & Family