How to Survive Teen Peer Pressure

Teen girl sitting apart from another group of girls

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When your teenager's friends influence their thoughts or behavior, that is peer pressure. This influence may be verbal, nonverbal, or even unconscious on the part of your child's friends. Peer pressure can negatively or positively impact your teen's behavior as they seek to look "cool" or mimic their friends. Peer pressure is a powerful influence, one that you need to understand so that you can help protect your teen from making harmful decisions done under its sway.

How does teen peer pressure affect your child? For example, your teen may suddenly discover a love of working out at the gym after their friends start exercising. Your teen, who typically dresses conservatively, may decide to dye their hair green. What is going on? Your teenagers may feel pressure from their friends to do what they are doing or to stand out. Your teen's desire to fit in—and try something new—is a powerful force. Welcome to teen peer pressure.

Why Is It so Powerful?

As humans, we all go through developmental phases. As an infant, your child needed to learn their parents are trustworthy and will take care of all their needs. As a teenager, your child's task is to begin separating from their family and develop a separate sense of self.

Part of this process is going from identifying with parents and their values to identifying more with their peer's values and interests. Friends become of utmost importance, and fitting in with a group of friends is a crucial task during this developmental stage. Additionally, studies show that it is the friend who feels less secure or satisfied in the friendship who is more prone to the influence of the other friend, particularly with regard to trying risky behaviors.

This is why your child's friends are so influential. Your teen is “trying on” different thoughts, ideas, and lifestyles that these friends offer. This is a key process in learning to make their own decisions and for their discovery of who they are. However, you don't want them to end up making choices that will do them harm.

Positive vs. Negative Peer Pressure

Your teen's friends may be earth-conscious and put pressure, intentionally or not, on your child to adopt green behaviors. When they start to recycle and cut back on their spending sprees, peer pressure looks pretty good. Unfortunately, social pressure isn't always a positive influence. For example, kids might feel pressured to smoke, drink, use drugs, dress provocatively, take nude photos, skip school, drive recklessly, or have sex.

For example, your teen might try smoking even though they know it's harmful, simply because all their friends are doing it and are encouraging them to as well. A teen brain often does not have the executive functioning ability to resist—or effectively evaluate the consequences of their choices.

An adolescent brain is still a work in progress. It constantly seeks new experiences but it doesn't have the ability to say, “Hey, smoking seems cool but I shouldn't because it's bad for me.” Additionally, research shows that the teen brain seems to have a higher need for new, exciting, and intense stimulation than an adult brain does. Coincidentally, new, exciting, and intense experiences many times translate into high-risk behavior.

Because a teen's brain is seeking new stimulation and can't always put the brakes on a bad idea, a friend's suggestion to “have fun” by painting graffiti on the high school or speeding down the highway may be tempting, regardless of the consequences.

How to Counteract Negative Peer Pressure

A tactic that you might not have considered trying in the battle against harmful peer pressure is using a “normative” strategy. Many discussions of peer pressure include teaching your child refusal skills, like what to say if someone offers you drugs. There is some thought that teaching these refusal or reduction skills are more effective alongside using normative education.

What this normative strategy includes is an honest discussion about the perceptions of the prevalence of risky behavior—what your teen thinks is happening versus reality. For example, your child may think they are the only kid whose parents limit their screen time. However, not only do doctors strongly recommend these limits, but many other parents do curtail their teen's time on electronic devices—and don't allow gaming or social media posting at all hours of the night.

Letting your teen know the truth about how often teens are avoiding these harmful choices may let them know that they aren't alone or out of the social norm—something that they absolutely need to hear.

You are one of the biggest influences on your teen. It may seem like they aren't listening, but they truly are. Studies show that when parents stay involved in their teens' lives and model the behavior they want to see, their kids tend to make better choices for themselves.

A Word From Verywell

Peer pressure can be very difficult for teens to resist. However, it's important to trust your teen—and trust that your influence is still powerfully important. Stay interested and aware of what your teen is doing, and let them know you are always there to talk and support them. A ready, compassionate listening ear along with consistent messages about your expectations may help insulate your child from negative peer pressure.

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