When I talk with groups of parents whose children are approaching the teenage years, one concern that is frequently raised is that of peer pressure. Parents are afraid of the peer pressure to which their children may be subject in secondary school, believing it to be an almost irresistible force waiting to prey on their innocent children. Whist not wishing to deny the influential role that peer pressure can play in a teenager’s experience, reality is often very different from that anticipated and feared by parents.
I believe it is helpful to distinguish between peer influence and peer pressure, reserving the latter term to describe the situation where peer influence has become a problem. To varying degrees, people of all ages are subject to influence from their peers. In the case of teenagers, however, and probably due to a combination of factors, peer influence carries a heightened importance, sometimes spilling over into the negative experience of peer pressure.
It is important to understand that peer influence can be positive. The adult tendency to fear that teenage peer influence leads inexorably to undesirable or inadvisable behaviour is, in fact, ill-founded. As Maria de Guzman points out, “… peer influence … can actually motivate youth to study harder in school, volunteer for community and social services, and participate in sports and other productive endeavours. In fact, most teens report that their peers pressure them not to engage in drug use and sexual activity.”
Peer influence impacts across a range of areas from the superficial to the serious. It is most commonly observed in groups of teenagers dressing similarly, listening to similar types of music, or using their own customised vocabulary. Such common phenomena help us see that ultimately peer influence is founded on the desire to feel that one is accepted as a member of a group. However, as de Guzman points out, the similarities referred to above are often the reasons why groups of teenagers come together in the first place. So, whilst it may appear to the external observer that a group of teenagers portrays the effects of peer influence, those similarities may have pre-existed, and contributed to, the formation of the group.
It is difficult to identify precisely the point at which peer influence begins to tip over into peer pressure. One of the markers is the transition from group acceptance on the basis of similarity to pressure to conform. This feeds on the desire for acceptance and may be, at least to some degree, a self-imposed pressure whereby the teenager seeks to conform to what they think is the group expectation even though this may not have been spoken.
At the more serious end of the range from peer influence to peer pressure are the instances feared by parents. Some teenagers engage in riskier activities, make unhealthier decisions, and indulge in more problematic behaviours when they are with others than they ever would alone. In areas such as sexual activity, alcohol, smoking, drugs and illegal activity, some teenagers risk significant damage to themselves and serious long-term consequences. Peer pressure can be a contributing factor in all these areas. Parents, teachers and schools face the question of how they can best prepare teenagers to distinguish between the more benign peer influences, on the one hand, and the more serious aspects of peer pressure that need to be resisted, on the other. Additionally, there is the question of how teenagers can best be equipped to offer that resistance when it is required.
Advice for parents
Model a good understanding of what is important. Many arguments that occur between parents and their teenagers are focused on things that do not ultimately matter a great deal. To see their teenager wearing ripped clothing may irritate, for example, but it pales into insignificance alongside participation in cyberbullying or getting into a car with a peer who has been drinking alcohol. Wise parents will accord age-appropriate liberty with regard to the relatively unimportant matters, but will agree clear boundaries with their teenager regarding the more serious issues. Parents who are able to distinguish clearly between relatively minor and more serious matters, and to justify their distinctions, provide a good model for their teenagers. They also provide a sound basis for the teenagers to use as they come eventually to their own decisions about the relative importance of matters, and especially with regard to those that require resistance of peer pressure. This is even more the case if parents can refrain from “making an issue” out of something unless it belongs to the more serious category.
Work to build your teenager’s self-esteem. Parents should not under-estimate how difficult it can be for a teenager to stand firm in the face of peer pressure, especially in the age of social media. Teenagers with a strong sense of self-esteem have an improved chance of being able to assert their independence in the face of peer pressure when the need arises. Of course, the building of self-esteem will start during childhood, but it is an aspect of parenting that can be undercut as children become teenagers unless a deliberate effort is made to ensure its continuance.
Promote communication. Discussion between parents and teenagers of a wide range of issues can be helpful to the teenager as they seek to develop their own values and opinions. Many teenagers want to know their parents’ views on all manner of matters as it gives them a strong reference point as they seek to work out their own views. Discussion of peer influence and peer pressure can be included, especially if family discussions are a regular occurrence, along with possible strategies for resisting peer pressure where necessary. Especially with younger teenagers, rehearsal of simple strategies for saying “No” can be a valuable exercise. I believe it is important that teenagers learn to justify their views, rather than simply assert them, and to that end, they should understand that “everybody does it” is never an acceptable reason for a decision.
Get to know their friends. Wherever possible, get to know the friends of your teenager, perhaps by encouraging them to use your home as a meeting place. Engaging with your own teenager in private about some aspects of their friends’ beliefs or behaviours is appropriate, but avoid direct criticism of their friends as that is more likely to drive them away from you and towards the friends about whom you may have reservations.
Support your teenager. It is important for your teenager to know that you will always support them, whilst expecting them to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. They need to know that they can come to you with any matter that is causing them concern, that you will listen to them and support them, without absolving them from the responsibility that is properly theirs. Peer pressure can be a powerful influence for sure, but it is not an excuse-all, as ultimately we are each responsible for our decisions and actions.
Advice for teachers and schools
Promote an accurate view of society. One of the reasons peer pressure operates is that many teenagers want to feel they belong, which means for them that if “everybody is doing it”, they want to make sure they are doing it too! Often, however, the behaviour that is perceived by teenagers to be the norm amongst their peers is in actuality the norm only amongst a small minority of their peers. Teenagers often have little or no concept of the bigger picture. For example, statistics indicate that in western societies, around 10% of teenagers are smokers. This means that around 90% are not smokers but, sadly, those who take up smoking “to be like everyone else” and so to appear cool, have no idea that they are leaving the position of the vast majority in order to align with a small minority. A more accurate view of society and a better understanding of statistics may not solve the problem of peer pressure but it could reverse its effect for some.
Promote positive peer influence. The Red Cross uses peer educators to teach teenagers about safe sex because they have found that teens are more likely to listen to positive messages when they come from those in their own age group (Ref teens.lovetoknow.com). Schools are well placed to promote positive peer influence through similar initiatives and through mentorship programmes between older and younger students. Such schemes have enormous potential for good in the lives of today’s teenagers.