When you hear the words “peer pressure,” you might picture a group of teens standing around cajoling one member of the group to do something harmful, like use drugs, drink too much alcohol, or shoplift. In reality, peer pressure is usually more subtle. It’s also not necessarily a negative thing; there are times when kids will do the right thing because they are pressured to do so by their peers. Understanding what peer pressure is can help you talk to your teenager about what to do if they feel pressured to take part in a harmful, dangerous, or illegal activity.
Peer Pressure vs. Peer Influence
When teens feel pressured to take part in activities that are unsafe or against the law, it’s not always because other teenagers are actively pressuring or asking them to do so. Instead, it could be peer influence to blame. Even if a teen’s core group of friends isn’t around, he or she is still influenced by them. Your teen might think, “What would Bobby do?” when faced with a decision, and then act the way they think their friend might.
The main issue with peer influence is that often teens have barks that are worse than their bites. They might mouth off and say that they’d act a certain way in a given situation, but in reality, they might be more likely to back off rather than fight or to say no rather than accept a joint. Many teens have the perception that other people their age are more put-together, cooler, or braver than they are, and these incorrect perceptions can influence behavior in either a positive or negative way.
The Positive Side of Peer Pressure
You might be surprised to hear that a lot of peer pressure or peer influence is not negative. There are plenty of teens who would undoubtedly say no to drugs or alcohol. Those kids are influencing their peers to do the same. There are also a lot of teens who are into healthy living; they might choose to eat a salad and grilled chicken for lunch, join sports teams, and get all of their homework done. These teenagers often influence or pressure their friends to also adopt healthful habits. They don’t use coercion or force; they just set a good example and become someone that other teens want to emulate.
In addition to friends exerting influence, many teens are also influenced by members of their class or team. For example, if your son or daughter knows that the entire class will forgo the pep rally if there’s misbehavior during a math test, he or she is probably not going to incite their annoyance by cutting up. Some teachers and coaches will take advantage of this type of positive peer pressure by creating consequences that will affect the entire class, though this is controversial.
The Dangers of Peer Pressure
Of course, the more common perception of peer pressure is that it causes good kids to do bad things. And this is not untrue. At times, teenagers will do downright stupid things because they were either pressured or influenced by their peer group. A bunch of kids at a party might be more likely to drink when others around them are drinking. Cyberbullying can also take hold more easily when the mob mentality is at play. Many teenagers get caught up in the spirit of their friends and end up committing crimes or getting into other types of trouble.
Another danger of peer pressure and peer influence is that your teen could get into behaviors that end up leaching into the adult years. For example, a teen who is influenced to get involved with drugs could end up battling an addiction. Someone who is pressured to shoplift or vandalize a building could end up with a criminal record that makes it difficult to get a job later, depending on your state’s laws. This is something worth discussing with your child before it gets to the point of meeting serious consequences.
How Parental Pressure Stacks Up
The good news is that there is evidence that parental approval means more to many teens than peer approval. This means that if your child’s peers are pushing him or her to do something that you’d disapprove of, it’s likely that knowing your stance might stop your teen in his or her tracks. This is particularly true if you and your teen have a good relationship.
You can improve the odds that your teen will confide in you and take your opinion more seriously than the opinions of his or her friends. Spend time together each week. Plan an outing or a ritual for just the two of you. For example, you might take your teen out for coffee every Saturday morning or spend one evening per week working on a project. Let your teen guide the conversation; show him or her that you can provide a listening ear and support, but try to refrain from judgement. Make it clear that your teen is worth spending time with and that you find what he or she has to say to be important.
How to Nip Dangerous Peer Pressure
As a parent of a teen, it’s your job to sometimes make unpopular calls that your child might not appreciate. If you think that he or she is being negatively influenced by a peer, it makes sense to first talk to your teen, then to enact boundaries that will keep your child safe. Forbidding contact with certain friends is usually a recipe for disaster, so this should only be an option if your teen’s safety is at stake. Otherwise, encouraging the teens to hang out at your house and making it clear to your child that certain activities are not allowed can help. Teens often appreciate boundaries, even if they act as though they do not.
Parenting a teenager is difficult and worrying about the influence that your child’s peers may have is often par for the course. Knowing that you have a larger influence over your teen and that peer pressure can be positive, not just negative, is the key to staying calm and not letting stress take over your relationship with your child.