When a child is young, their primary social connections come through family relationship. From these connections a child learns the family values, acceptable behaviors, and expected actions and habits. As a child grows into adolescence, peers begin to take on a stronger role in social development, exerting more influence on a developing young person than the family unit had in the past. Peer pressure plays a pivotal role in adolescent behavior and choices because of the physical, emotional, and social shifts the child is going through. It is the natural time when a child begins to question parental guidance and begin to develop their own sense of who they are within their world. As this natural and biological process of developing their own set of standards for their lives occurs, they naturally look to peers for their social cues. This can have both positive and negative consequences depending on the type of peers influencing the child.
The need to fit in and feel accepted, as well as the need to find their own path of self-expression, contributes to how much of an effect peer pressure has for a particular child. Children with a high self-esteem, who are secure in their relationships with the adults in their lives, who are confident in who they are and what they want are more likely to develop strong peer relationships with peers who have a more focused outlook. While most will still challenge their parents and former role as an obedient child, they are less likely to succumb to pressure to engage in negative behaviors. Children with low self-esteem, who lack confidence and are insecure in their relationships, are more likely to succumb to peer pressure to engage in negative behaviors. The need to fit in and be accepted can often override both the desires and the sense of right and wrong for a child who feel socially isolated in any way. Children who have had difficulty making friends as a younger child, especially those who are less socially savvy, are more likely to be taken in by negative groups of peers who use them and can exert power over them because of the child’s need to be accepted. Youths have been known to do thing they knew were wrong and that they did not want to do but felt very pressured to be accepted, which overrode their sense of themselves. There are two levels of peer pressure that every parent should understand.
Large Group Peer Pressure
The first is the peer pressure that comes through large group association. Examples include:
-Volunteer and Community Activities
The large group dynamic in these groups offers a more general form of peer pressure, influencing a child’s decision regarding:
Essentially those choices that stem from the idea “everyone else is doing it”, which is an argument often used by children when their choices are challenged by parents. According to a report from the University of Nevada, part of the reason that peers take on such a strong role in a child’s development during adolescence is that 61% of adults view youths in general with misgiving and distrust, having a negative view of teenagers, and only 20% of adolescents feel valued by the adults in their community. Youths look to their peers as they feel more valued and respected as an individual by peer than by adults. Children who feel disconnected from the adults in their communities are more likely to gravitate toward anti-society groups such as gangs to find a place they can belong.
Large group peer pressure is more obvious, and more susceptible to parental influence, as a parent or caregiver can guide their adolescent towards the groups that they feel would be a beneficial influence for the child. Research shows that children who engage in volunteer activities that directly benefit their community have better outcomes in their personal lives. The studies suggest that children who have positive peer pressure through groups that are focused on teamwork and community connections have amazing benefits both to themselves and to the community, such as:
-50% less likely to use drugs and alcohol
-less likely to become pregnant as teens
-less likely to engage in destructive behaviors
-greater understanding of people different from them
-develop leadership skills
-gain job skills and experience
-a chance to explore career paths of interest
-expand social circles and social awareness
-intergenerational awareness and connections
-more likely to do well in school
-more likely to graduate and vote
-more likely to have a good work ethic as an adult
-more likely to volunteer as an adult
-81% of adults who volunteered as youths participated in charitable giving
-youths can support a cause they believe in
Parents, teachers, and other adults in a youth’s life can try to steer the youth towards positive large groups, which will provide positive peer pressure. However, it is natural for adolescents to rebel again adult intervention in their lives. Biologically they are changing and their need to become independent is very pressing. When guiding a youth away from those groups that are a negative influence and towards groups that could have a positive influence, it is imperative that the youth be involved in how and where they want to spend their time. Look into groups, clubs, or sports that the child has expressed an interest in exploring. Forbidding or requiring an activity will often result in greater rebellion and less connection with the youth.
Ways a parent can work with large group peer pressure:
–Listen carefully to what your child is saying, both with their words and with their actions
-Be open to criticism from your child, and consider what they are saying, modeling for them openness and appropriate reactions to constructive criticism (even if they are not voicing it in a constructive way)
-Find a common ground–you may not like what they want to do, just as they ay not want ot join the group you want them to, work together to find a group you can both agree on even if it is not the first choice for either of you
-Talk with them about peer pressure and how to say no to activities that they do not want to do
-Encourage them to join activities and groups that foster a positive attitude
-Be there for them when they are upset about being rejected by peers for not conforming
-For kids who actively try to be counter culture, making not fitting in as a goal, support them in their positive choices and let them find acceptance in their difference, and be a listening ear when they are upset
-Cultivate a safe space for teens to talk to you, and allow them to have strong relationships with other adults like teachers, coaches, or mentors, working together to help your child find a positive path
With strong connections in positive large group settings, the large group peer pressure can have a positive impact on a youth’s behavior and on their chances of being successful as an adult. The pressure to do good and behave in a beneficial way can often override the negative influences from various school and cultural connections that you and the youth may have less control over. Finding a place of acceptance apart from the family that holds an interest to the youth can help overcome some of the challenges of being an adolescent.
Small Group Peer Pressure
A much harder type of peer pressure to control and to overcome for a youth is the pressure they feel from close friends. While a large group pressure can be overcome by staying out of the limelight and pretending to conform if necessary, close friends make it impossible to pretend to be going with the flow when in a small group or one on one. A youth’s friends know who they really are and what they really believe. The opinions and acceptance of those who are closest to a young person is of greater importance to them usually than the opinions and acceptance of parents, teachers or any other influence. These are the people who the youth feels most connected to, most understood by, and who are really the most important people in their lives during the teenage years. Often a person is willing to sacrifice a great deal for the approval of their friends.
While it is vital to social and personal development for youths to form close, private relationships with a small handful of friends, the relationships can sometimes become toxic if one of the friends strongly exerts pressure to do things that are destructive. Loyalty to a friend and the desire to support and care for them, to join them and be there for them, can convince a person to do things out of character for them.
What can you do as a parent when your adolescent has a toxic friendship that has a lot of negative peer pressure?
-Do NOT forbid an relationship with that person…often taking too strong of a stance against your teens friend will only push them to rebellion, and closer to that person, setting up a situation for secrets, lying, and sneaking.
-Do talk to your youth about your concerns that their friend is going down the wrong path
-Provide a safe place for your teen AND their friend to be where you can have more supervision and influence, have them come to your house instead of your teen going to theirs
-Try to get to know your child’s friends, develop a connection with them without being condescending…getting to know them can give you insight into who they are and why they feel the need to rebel…often a child feel misunderstood and will respond positively to adults willing to listen to them
-Listen to your teen when they are talking about their friend without jumping in with judgements about that friend
-Support your youth’s decisions to make good choices and help them deal with the strong and painful emotions of damaging a relationship with a close friend for not going along with a bad decision
-Support your child emotionally through the painful consequences of making a bad choice due to the influence of a friend, but let them feel the natural consequences of those decisions
If you are a young person who feels very pressured to do what a friend says even if you feel it is wrong, here are a few suggestions on how to deal with peer pressure:
-Know that you are the one that has to live your life, and that you need to choose what is best for you, especially if you know that it is not right for you
-Tell your friend that you care about them and understand if they want to do it, but that you are going to sit this one out
-Be willing to be rejected by your friend…they may be going through something you don’t understand and may take it out on you for not doing what they want, but in the end, by standing up for what is right, you will be helping them
-By making the right choice, you may help them make a better choice for themselves and not follow the path towards destruction
-Seek help from a trusted adult–a parent, teacher, coach, friend’s parent, etc….–sometimes trying to deal with it alone is impossible
-Talk it out and know that sometimes friends have to take different paths
-While it can be hard to make a choice that breaks a friendship, remember that your life and your values have great worth, and you need to do what is right for YOU.
-If you are afraid for the health or safety of your friend or yourself, reach out to safe people in your life, and allow them to do what is necessary to make sure you are safe
-Understand that it may not be easy to fight peer pressure, and you may think doing the right thing makes things worse for your life for a while, but being true to yourself is vitally important for your future
-Talk to people about what you are feeling, seek out safe supports that can understand you and support you towards a positive and bright future…find a group, club, team, or other connections that can understand you and help you become the best you that you can be…so that YOU can be the positive peer pressure in other people’s lives
Always remember…it is okay to not fit in…it is okay to be who you are…and it is okay to let go of friendships that no longer make your life better…it is okay to feel saddened by the end of a friendship…and it is okay to make new friends.