The term peer pressure typically carries negative connotations, conjuring images of teens urging one another to toss rocks onto the cars below because it’s what “all the cool kids” are doing.
In reality, peer pressure can be good or bad. And it’s not only adolescents who fall under its spell; it begins in elementary school — or even earlier. And generally, it’s not some bad apple who’s trying to wield influence, but rather friends pressuring other friends.
There are lots of different ways that peer pressure manifests — some subtle and others less so. It can include anything from teasing kids who don’t wear the same type of clothing as their peers to shunning a particular child in school or pushing a teen to try cigarettes.
A Parent’s Role
Parents can help with peer pressure in several effective ways. To start, you can talk to your children about common situations in which peer pressure arises — for example, being pressed to go to a party that your parents told you not to attend or to help someone cheat on a test. Talk to your child about how to anticipate scenarios where she may feel pushed to go along with something she doesn’t want to do, and practice a few responses, like “We’re all friends;” “My parents would kill me;” or “I signed a pledge for sports and I can’t miss practice.”
Appearing or actually being busy is also a great deterrent. “Sports,” said one working mother of two active boys who went to Stanford and UC Berkeley, “is the secret.” Provide your kids with positive activities so they’re exposed to models where the pressure is for teamwork and achieving productive goals, rather than for mischief or meanness.
When It Begins
Lauren, a second-grade teacher who has taught in both public and private schools, says that she sees peer pressure start to be a real force toward the end of second grade for girls, and a little later for boys.
“They become very aware of who has what and truly, it can go either way,” Lauren said. “It can be a positive way to teach social norms. It can be really detrimental if kids use it as a way to make other kids feel bad or do something.”
As peer pressure develops, it can turn into an aim to please certain cliques. Lauren says she sees it start with “something that invades the class, such as Minecraft or Pokémon.” This craze — whatever it happens to be at the moment — becomes something that a child thinks she needs to have or do in order to take part in the social dynamics in the class.
Dealing With the Pressure
Social scientists who study group interactions have noted that peer pressure is often exerted by those who are part of the “in” group against those who are perceived to be part of the “out” group.
Peer pressure can begin with something as seemingly inconsequential as who has white or wheat bread for their sandwich. I remember being shunned by a pack of little girls in first grade who, when they saw my wheat bread and apricot jelly sandwich, would say, “Ewwww, your lunch is so gross!” and squeal if I sat near them. My response? To give that group a wide berth and play with the boys.
“I tell kids to think for themselves,” said Lauren. Interestingly, when coaching children toward better behavior, Lauren doesn’t typically use empathy unless she feels a child has already developed this skill.
“[Empathy] can backfire,” she said. “Kids suddenly recognize that they have this power to make someone feel bad and they go with it.”
So instead of asking children “How would you feel if … ,” she warns them of potential consequences. If they are excluding someone, she tells them, there may come a time when they won’t be included because social dynamics shift and classmates will remember who left someone out the last time around.
One mother said that a couple of her fourth-grade daughter’s classmates told her not to play with another girl. And yet, just days before, they’d all been friends. Her daughter refused to go along with the exclusion and told the other girls that they weren’t being nice. Coming from a big family, the daughter was pretty savvy about social relationships and definitely knew which way was up, her mother said. By speaking up — or, being an upstander —her daughter was able to turn this peer pressure on its head, and the two fourth graders dropped their attempts to socially isolate the other girl.
“I know these girls and their families. I like them all,” said the mother. “I just tell my children that ‘these girls are still learning.’ People make mistakes, and the important thing is to learn from mistakes.”
She believes that parents have to let children know what is acceptable behavior. Moreover, some studies have shown that parents have more influence than previously thought. Letting your children know your family’s values when it comes to how to treat others is likely to have a stronger impact than you may have thought.
“I think it is really important to let your children know that there are people who lead very different lives,” she said. “I tell them we don’t do that.”
Follow this link for more information about how to handle bullying in school.
Pointing Kids in the Right Direction. Teen Peer Pressure. Retrieved from Kidpointz.
National Institute of Health (NIH): National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Learn How to Spot Peer Pressure Tricks. Retrieved from National Institutes of Health, The Cool Spot.