Helping Adolescents Deal with Peer Pressure

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Every parent worries about how their child will cope with peer pressure. Peer pressure is often considered as the cause for the usually ‘rebellious’ behaviour that adolescents display as they try to assert their independence and associate more with their friends and classmates. As much as parents want to wish it away, peer pressure is a reality that will continue to influence children.

What is the effect of peer pressure?

Peer pressure can influence your child’s dressing habits, their taste in music, their desire for tattoos or piercings, their hairstyles and even their food choices. But it does not stop there. There is a more disturbing tendency, under the influence of peer pressure, to indulge in dangerous and socially risky behaviour – including violence, drugs, truancy, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency. Teenagers may make many ill decisions in the name of wanting to be liked by or belong to a certain social group. In the current context, teenagers and young adults may be flouting social distancing norms and violating the lockdown.

At the same time, not all peer influence is bad. Just as it can lead to socially objectionable behaviour, peer pressure can also have a positive effect on adolescents – by encouraging them to display socially desirable qualities like honesty, avoiding substance abuse, understanding the value of hard work and displaying social grace.

Why do teens give in to peer pressure?

The significance of peer pressure in the lives of adolescents can be traced to Maslow’s hierarchy where he mentions the need to belong. Maslow was a psychologist who developed a theory of different levels of needs, ranging from the basic and essential needs to more advanced needs. The need to belong, according to him, is very important – right after basic biological needs and safety needs. Herein, the focus lays on building friendships, experiencing intimacy, and developing a sense of connection.

As adolescents emerge from the cocoon of parental safety and start stepping out into the real world, their first port of call is usually their group of friends. But gaining admittance to these groups requires conformity in terms of style, values and interests, designed not only to foster a feeling of solidarity within the group but also to distinguish the group from other groups. Adolescents usually react to this need for conformity in two ways – by totally accepting that culture, or embracing a counter-culture.

Veering away from conformity seldom goes unobserved within the peer group and is dealt with methods ranging from the mild (like using reasoning to bring the member to heel) to the severe (bullying, violence, insult and rejection).

Emerging research also suggests that the brain undergoes rewiring at this age in a way that adolescents become more responsive to the opinions of their peers. Thus, it is chiefly a combination of the need to belong, the desire to avoid confrontation, insult and rejection, and the remodelling of the brain which makes your adolescent act in seemingly strange and difficult ways.

Who is more susceptible to peer pressure?

Some adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure than others. The first determinant is age. Research suggests that susceptibility to peer pressure increases from between ages 10 and 14 – at 14, peer influence is at its peak. The development of individual personality among adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 leads to a decline in susceptibility in these years, resulting in the waning of peer pressure influence. Gender is a second factor, where studies have shown boys to be more susceptible than girls to peer influence in indulging in socially risky behaviours like violence and delinquency.

Other factors include openness to influence and relationship dynamics. The first refers to an assessment of the degree to which adolescents are influenced by a peer’s actions to behave in a similar manner. The second refers to factors such as the quality of the relationship between the adolescent and their peers, the duration of the relationship, and the power dynamics between the two.

Finally, how a child relates to their parents plays a crucial role in determining vulnerability to peer pressure. Studies have shown that adolescents who have a secure relationship with their parents are less likely to succumb to peer pressure.

In sum, a male child in his mid-teens, with close friends that exert peer influence on him and with an insecure relationship with his parents is most likely to succumb to peer pressure and indulge in socially risky behaviours.

How can parents help their children resist peer pressure?

Teach them to say no: You can teach your child ways to resist peer pressure—and you don’t have to wait till they reach adolescence to start. Teach them to say ‘no’ with grace and tact from the early years itself. Convey the fact that you understand the difficulty that saying ‘no’ entails—the cost of refusal can often be loss of friendship or social status—and make clear why dissent and repudiation are sometimes important to protect an individual’s larger interests.

Maintain open lines of communication with your child: There is no substitute for talking to your kid. Ask how their friends behave with them and try and gauge what sort of influence they exert on your youngster—positive or negative. Tell your child about the different ways in which peer pressure manifests itself so that they can recognise it when they see it. Speak to them about your own experience of peer pressure as a teenager and how you dealt with it at the time. Conversely, encourage your child to share their thoughts with you and seek advice from you in difficult situations.

Boost your child’s self-esteem and assertiveness: Help your child become confident, assertive and develop positive self-esteem so that they don’t have to go looking for validation from their friends. Teach them the difference between good and bad and equip them with thinking skills, so they can make rational judgements on their own. An adolescent with positive self-esteem and a keen sense of right and wrong is much better equipped to ward off peer pressure than one with unsound values and an insecure temperament.

Reach out for help: Finally, if you believe peer pressure is leading your child to participate in risky behaviour, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Guidance counselling has been shown to effectively counter the effects of negative peer pressure. Consult a professional counsellor if you think you need help. Sometimes, a couple of sessions with the therapist is all it takes to get your teen’s life back on track.

  • The author of this article is Sweta Bothra, Lead Psychologist at InnerHour


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