As kids, our friendships are guided by our parents as the primary caregivers and led by who they choose to be our playdate. The only thing that matters, at that age, is having someone to play with. However, as we grow older and begin to spend more time away from home; at school or in other co-curricular activities, peers naturally start playing a greater role in our life. Deciding who our friends are may become somewhat of a game-changer.
Research shows the most impressionable age for peer influence is the middle school years. A Temple University study found that children are the most vulnerable to peer pressure between the ages of 10 and 14. After age 14, teens are in a crucial period to become more firm in their beliefs but still lack the mental maturity to control impulses and make wise long-term decisions. Because of this, many teens are more susceptible to influence from older or more popular friends. It is human nature to listen to and learn from our peers and, it is not difficult to be influenced and inspired by the popular kid. It may seem like the norm in teenagers but it can be quite challenging and overwhelming for many teens, resulting in a profound impact on a young person’s behaviour.
Peer pressure can come in several forms. A blog post by ‘Talk it Out’ suggests that peer pressure can be through verbal interactions when someone suggests, persuades or otherwise directs the other to engage in a specific behaviour. Individually, the impact may not be so severe however when spoken influence takes place within a group, the obligation to succumb is immense. On the other hand, peer pressure can also be unspoken when the teen is exposed to the actions of one or more peers such as making fashion choices or joining a club and is therefore left to decide whether they want to follow the lead.
Peer pressure is normally behaviour-centric and at times influences are picked up by teens directly such as in instances when teenagers feel obliged to help a friend during the exam just by the way (s)he looks at them. Research indicates that teens see the actions of other teens with stronger personalities and are indirectly put in a position of following the leader or walking away.
Peer pressure is often considered negative, especially by parents, as it is perceived to encourage teens to engage in behaviour that may be against the family’s moral code or against their best interest. It is not uncommon for teens with strong morals to find themselves engaging in rebellious behaviour that goes against their beliefs, simply because they want acceptance. This is even more true when teens feel rejected and not heard by their parents.
Having said that, peer pressure is not always negative. Positive peer pressure can be exerted if the behaviours are healthy, age-appropriate, and socially acceptable. Examples of positive peer pressure can include forming study groups to influence good study habits or coming up with innovative money-making ideas or staying away from junk to stay fit and healthy.
Young people often lack the skills to come up with an excuse or reason to say no to negative peer pressure. It is tough to be the only one who says “no” to peer pressure, but inner strength and self-confidence can help stand firm, walk away, and resist doing something when you know better. It is also important to pay attention to your own feelings and beliefs about what is right and wrong in order to know the right thing to do. For this, engaging in mindfulness focused activities can help teens connect with their feelings and become grounded.
Studies also suggest that teens who feel validated by their parents are more resistant to peer pressure. D’Arcy Lyness, PhD at Nemours Kids Health says that parents instil a sense of confidence, independence and the ability to verbally articulate emotions in their teens. This includes empathizing with them and modelling healthy emotional expression. Parents can be the strongest influence in their child’s life if they understand and are aware of the types of peer pressure their teenager is facing. Supporting healthy friendships, modelling responsible behaviour and keeping an open, judgment-free family dialogue are three key components of maintaining positive parental influence on a teenager. When teens can express themselves openly and when parents listen and acknowledge them, a foundation of trust and support between parent and teen is built.