Peer Pressure on Teens and Their Parents

Peer pressure is a normal part of life. Right or wrong, humans tend to compare themselves to each other and pressure kicks in. Sometimes that pressure can be good, such as trying to get straight A’s like Judy, and sometimes that pressure can be bad, such as trying to be as “cool” as Tim when he smokes, but we all feel it at some point.

Many parents have two misconceptions about peer pressure. First, they tend to believe it is more prevalent and in-your-face than it truly is. Generally, teens aren’t strong-armed into risky behaviors. Friends play a subtle role in your child’s decisions, since teens are more likely to hang out with other teens who do the same things. Second, parents tend to believe that peer pressure is more influential in their child’s life than they are. Although teens will often act like nothing matters more than their friends, studies and research consistently show that parents are the number one influence on a teen’s decision-making. Your child is very aware of your thoughts and opinions even as they change their hair, their clothes, their favorite activities and even their style of speech to fit in with their friends. So, don’t assume your teen is a lost cause if you don’t like their friends. You wield way more power than you realize.

Here are some more interesting facts about peer pressure:

  • Teen peer pressure can come internally. Teens often overestimate what they believe their peers are doing. For example, they might say that ‘everyone’ is having sex except them or ‘everyone’ has tried alcohol. They create a pressure within themselves that isn’t based in reality. Parents might want to try researching the latest study findings on various teen behaviors to give their child a reality check. For example, parents could tell their teen that the most recent study from CDC has found that 72% of teens aged 15 to 17 have not had sex.
  • Be the ‘bad’ guy. Teens who have parents that provide discipline (making firm rules, providing consequences, waiting up for teens when they’re out) use that to their advantage in the world of peer pressure. Not only do they consider how disappointed you would be with them if they go against your rules, your teen can legitimately shift the blame to you. “My mom would kill me if I did that.”
  • Raise an opinionated child. Although it might drive you crazy, a child with lots of opinions has practice speaking his or her own mind. Additionally, encourage your teens to seriously consider where they stand on key issues like sex, drugs and alcohol. They will be most clear-headed to decide their own position on these topics when they are not around their friends or in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Observe your teen’s friends. You do not want to criticize your teen’s friends. This will break down communication between the two of you quickly. Building relationships with friends is a skill that every child must learn. Parents can help with this by talking to their teens. Ask them open-ended questions, such as, ‘What do you like about Susie?’ and ‘What happens when you don’t agree?’ You can even comment on the peer pressure you see, such as, ‘You follow the rules when you’re home alone, but seem to break them when Johnny comes over. Why do you suppose that is?’
  • Role play. Many times, children can find themselves doing things, in the moment, that they never thought they would do. Try role-playing with your kids to practice hypothetical situations, appropriate to their age and social contexts, that they may have to deal with. What if you were at a party and someone had a bottle of pills? What if you were about to get into a car and realized the driver was drunk? If your teen feels silly role-playing or won’t engage in this activity, at least encourage them to prepare a mental script of how they would like to deal with uncomfortable situations. The important thing is for adults to give teens alternatives to getting themselves out of tricky situations with their dignity intact.
  • Celebrate mistakes. No matter what you do, there is bound to be a time that your teen messes up.  And that’s good! It is better for your child to make a mistake now, when you’re available to help, than when they are out on their own. Mistakes are a great learning opportunity, so parents should help their child take responsibility for their actions, accept the consequences, reflect on how they can do things differently next time, and then move on.
  • Not every child falls victim to peer pressure. One of the more difficult things to understand is why some teens bow down to social pressure so much easier than others. Likely, personality traits and self-esteem have a lot to do with this, but according to a new Northwestern University study, which appears in the September 2011 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, there are also other factors involved. The study showed that teens are insulated from negative peer pressure if they had characteristics that their friends respected (e.g., close friendships with members of the opposite sex) or had something that their friends needed (e.g., a car).

Even Parents Suffer from Peer Pressure

Undoubtedly, when most people hear the words “peer pressure” they immediately picture children at school. But, peer pressure doesn’t just stop with graduation. Adults still face tremendous pressure to conform in everything from fashion to work culture. Your parenting is not immune to this pressure. I’m sure all of us at one time or another have worried what the teacher thinks of the lunch we pack our child or what the neighbors think of our chaotic attempt to get all of our children to their various sports practices.

New research at Ohio State University finds that having high standards for yourself as a parent can be beneficial, but caring what other parents think about your choices may in fact undermine your confidence and up your stress levels. “When parents are really worried about what others think about their parenting, this is an indication that they’re more likely to interpret things that happen to them and their child as failures,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, study co-author and an associate professor in human development and family science at Ohio State. “When parents have less confidence and more stress, their parenting quality suffers.”

Parenting is a long journey. So, although you should try to make appropriate choices to help your child develop into a responsible adult, you shouldn’t waste your time on what the world may think of your choices. It’s good to be aware of how others are parenting and what experts are saying, but that’s simply to inform yourself of options. You want to make educated decisions, not conforming ones.

One comment

  • Parents of teenagers soon realize that they can feel desperately outmatched by the power that peers seem to gain over a child. Children feel peer pressure and other influence at early ages. By middle school, peer influence may overcome attempts by parents to teach responsibility and respect. Parents may become anxious and feel helpless and scared at the apparent loss of a teenager to the whims of a weird and possibly unsafe adolescent culture.

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