As schools across the country are gearing up for or are already underway into a new school year, whether it be virtually or in-person due to COVID-19, now is a great time to talk about one of the leading catalysts of addiction – peer pressure. Students of all ages are widely accustomed to the idea of peer pressure in the pursuit to fit in socially. What they may not understand however, is the choices they make during these pivotal moments of negative social pressure can have life-long, often tragic repercussions in the years to come. In fact, research has shown that during adolescence, a person’s friends can influence the attitudes and behaviors across multiple fields of health and well-being, well into adulthood.* Now is the perfect time to take a closer look at peer pressure and the impact it may have and start the conversation.
What is Peer Pressure
According to the dictionary, peer pressure is defined as: a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one’s age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them.
Peer pressure can have both positive and negative consequences. Unfortunately, the pressure adolescents and young adults feel from their social circle to behave a certain way usually has more negative consequences. Oftentimes, it falls into the category of serious consequences, what is called “risk behavior” or behavior that is detrimental to one’s health and well-being. That is why it is so important to talk with our children and help them understand the risks associated with the choices they make and evaluate who they are spending time with. Teaching them strategies and questions to ask themselves about the behaviors they are engaging in. The choices made during these formative years are critical and can have lasting effects.
Types of Peer Pressure
Peer pressure comes in many forms, some subtle and some not so subtle. They can include words of encouragement, requests, challenges, threats, or insults. Each type of pressure has a tremendous impact on a young person’s behavior. Recognizing the different types of peer pressure in our own lives and reflecting on why we may engage in risk behavior as a result of that pressure is a good first step in making healthier decisions in the future.
When a person in a group or one-on-one environment verbally asks, suggests or persuades another person to engage in a specific behavior. Example: A friend asks you to steal some of your parents’ alcohol so they can drink before going to the football game.
When a person is exposed to the actions of an individual or group of peers and is left to make the decision to engage in the behavior themselves. The decision to engage is often made through impulse or the desire to fit in. Example: A few of your friends join the track team. You hate running but you join anyway.
This can be spoken or unspoken and results in someone being put in the position to make a decision on the spot. Example: If someone hands you a drink or a joint at a party, you are directly confronted with the decision to partake or not.
When a person perceives the actions of others and decides to emulate their behavior as a way to fit in. Example: If you hear that a popular group of kids drink or smoke on the weekends, you decide to experiment with alcohol and/or drugs to gain acceptance from those peers.
Negative Peer Pressure
Any instance where a person’s behavior compromises their morals or beliefs as a result of pressure from their peers. Negative peer pressure often comes in the form of underage drinking, using illicit substances, or engaging in behavior that negatively impacts overall health and wellbeing.**
Needing to dress or act a certain way
Cheating or copying someone else’s work or letting others copy your work
Not including certain people in social activities
Taking dangerous risks when driving
Using drugs or alcohol
Shoplifting or stealing
Engaging in sexual activity
Bullying or cyberbullying others
Projecting a misleading/false image on social media***
Positive Peer Pressure
You may be surprised to know that peer pressure, despite the negative connotations that surround the term, is not limited to detrimental or risk behaviors.In fact, when surrounded by a group engaging in behaviors that are healthy and age-appropriate, it can have a positive influence that enhances the life and well-being of the other individuals.Sometimes we refer to this as “reverse peer pressure.”
Making good grades and studying
Getting a job and saving money
Making a pact to not use drugs or alcohol
Staying healthy through diet and exercise
Volunteering at a local nonprofit
Joining a school club or team
Tutoring other students
Being a positive role model for others
How to Prepare Your Child to Deal with Peer Pressure
Parents have more power than they realize over the decision’s their children make. Understanding and being aware of the types of pressure your teen is facing is one step. But how do we help them deal with peer pressure effectively?
While the answer isn’t too complicated, enacting methods for dealing with peer pressure in moments of vulnerability and fear is sometimes easier said than done.That’s why it’s very important to prepare for these situations so that, even if your child has given into pressure in the past, they will have the tools necessary to refrain from engaging in risk behaviors in the future.
Start the Conversation
Sit down with your child and do some role playing. Ask them to put themselves in an imaginary scenario in which you are feeling pressured to act or behave in a certain way. Then ask them to think about the following questions:
How am I feeling?
It’s important to get in touch with yourself and pay attention to how your feeling.Does the situation make you feel uneasy? Are you anxious, scared or embarrassed? If your gut feeling is telling you there is something off or not right about the situation you are in, your gut is probably right.
Do I have a plan or response?
If you know that the behavior you are presented with is wrong, it’s important to have a prepared plan or response in mind so that, even if you are put on the spot, you will already know how to get yourself out of the situation. Practice with your child.
Does the person pressuring me know how I feel?
Sometimes, we give in to bad influence because we are afraid of sharing how we actually feel, especially as teenagers. The first time expressing how we feel in a certain situation is sometimes the hardest. However, once we get over that first hurdle – the subsequent instances will be much easier. Letting someone know how you are feeling is not a sign of weakness, but rather a signal of strength. And who knows, you may have more influence than you give yourself credit for. Sharing how you feel may allow the person you are engaged with to change their behavior, allowing you to be a positive influence for others.
Am I prepared to say no?
This may seem straightforward and, in a way, it is. Most of us have grown up hearing the phrase, “just say no.” But are you prepared to actually say, “no”?This doesn’t have to be a canned “no!” response; you can have anything prepared that you are comfortable with. Being able to say: “No thanks”, “I’m good”, or even “Nah, I tried it once and didn’t like it”, can be used without the need for an apology or further explanation.
Do I have an excuse to not engage?
Though just saying “no” is enough, sometimes it’s easier to have a prepared excuse that you can use to get you out of a situation that makes you uncomfortable.If someone asks you to smoke, you can say that you have asthma or breathing problems so it’s not a good idea for you to smoke. If someone offers you a drink, you could say that you have to drive home, or your parents do a breathalyzer test. A code word for a parent or friend that you can send as a text that signals that you need to get out of a situation is a great strategy. They can then call or text you saying you need to come home and you can leave without feeling socially compromised. Talk through different scenarios with your child.
Do the friends and peers that I surround myself with share my beliefs and values?
While having an excuse like the ones above is great for a few instances, if your child is frequently in situations in which they need to use an excuse to leave or not participate, it may be time to have them think about who they are surrounding themselves with. Do their personal beliefs and values align? It’s a good time to remind your son or daughter that the decisions they are making during these teen years will shape their identity. It’s important to surround yourself with people who reflect the person you’d like to be in the years to come. Distancing from a group of friends that are negative influences can be tough, especially if they have known these people for years. Let them know you are there to support them.
Do I have a trusted adult I can turn to for advice?
Having a trustworthy adult to confide in during moments of uncertainty or fear can be life-changing. It can be a parent(s), teacher, counselor, coach or mentor. We have all been a teenager once and likely have experienced what they are going through. A trusted adult can offer advice and strategies that can help navigate the struggles with peer pressure. Having open, honest conversations can provide valuable insight and make uncomfortable situations more tolerable. Encourage your child to find someone they trust and let them know it’s okay if it’s not you.
Communication is Key
As we all know through experience, adolescence is an extremely confusing and difficult time for many reasons. The desire to fit in, to be pretty or cool, to have and maintain acceptance from peers are often the driving forces in the decisions we make. The best thing we can do for our children is instill a sense of understanding that we know what they are going through and provide ways for them to combat peer pressure. Kids often distance themselves or isolate from parents when experiencing something they are embarrassed or ashamed about, thinking they would never understand. The truth is – we have the experience and knowledge to empathize with our children during these times. The challenge is finding ways to be open and communicative about peer pressure, substance use and more before they start down an unhealthy or destructive path. Finding the time to sit down and talk with your child regularly is important to not only create a compassionate, open and safe setting for them to share about their struggles but also to create a bond founded in love and understanding.
Communication is key, but remember, there still must be boundaries in place.Sometimes, it’s easy to want to be friends with our children rather than an authority figure, especially when our teenagers start to distance themselves as they make new friends and gain new freedoms with age. While it is great to have a friendly bond with your child, it is important to establish rules and expectations when it comes to risk behaviors, especially substance use.While we can teach our children how to respond to peer pressure, that alone is often not enough. In fact, research has shown that parents who monitor their children and maintain knowledge of what they are doing and who they are spending their time with, has a direct correlation with the prevention of various risk behaviors, including substance use and sexual behaviors.Sometimes we may not like to feel like “that” parent, and to the child it may feel like you are overbearing, but it is important to remember that during adolescence, the brain is still developing and has a lower tolerance for substances and the risk of dependency is increased.****
New school year, new you!
As your child starts the new school year, whether it be middle school, high school or college, take some time to talk with them about the person they would like to be. Reinforce that the decisions they make can have lasting effects well into adulthood, both positive and negative.
If they have succumbed to peer pressure in the past or are currently struggling, remind them we all make mistakes and it is okay. These experiences are how we learn to better ourselves and make wiser decisions in the future. A new school year can be a great start to redefine who they are and pledge to make positive choices.
If your son or daughter is someone that makes good decisions and doesn’t succumb to peer pressure easily, let them know! Tell them you proud of who they are and encourage them to continue being a leader among their peers. Suggest they consider reaching out to a friend who may be struggling with peer pressure and try to be the positive influence they may be missing in their lives. The power one voice of positivity can be the difference in anyone’s life.