Peers play a significant role in the social and emotional development of children. This influence increases throughout the teenage years as children become more independent.
The impact of a peer group can be positive and supportive or very problematic. I was prompted to write on this topic following a conversation with a Year 8 boy who told me that being ‘cool’ involved seeing who could ‘out dumb’ one another.
We know that adolescents often give in to peer pressure as they want to ‘fit in’ or they worry that they may be excluded from the group or made fun of by the ‘in crowd’. They are still learning to control their impulses, to think ahead or resist pressure from others. Unfortunately, in early adolescence, teenagers are particularly susceptible to the immediate rewards of a potential choice and are less inclined to think through the potential consequences of their actions.
Emerging research indicates that social acceptance triggers stronger positive emotions during adolescence than it does in adulthood. Because teenagers are so much more concerned with being liked than adults are, their decisions and the choices they make are often influenced by external factors such as peers.
In a study of teenage driving habits, researchers monitoring the brain activity of drivers found that having friends in the car, or just knowing that friends were watching, activated brain regions linked with reward, and risky decisions.
“the majority of teens with substance abuse problems begin using drugs or alcohol as a result of peer pressure…”
Worryingly, studies consistently tell us that the majority of teens with substance abuse problems begin using drugs or alcohol as a result of peer pressure, either in person or on social media. Teens also feel pressure to do the things that they think that their peers are doing and they frequently overestimate the prevalence of alcohol and drug use by others. In the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey, one of the key findings was that young adults are actually drinking less and fewer 12 to 17-year-olds are drinking at all.
What can we do?
Parents and other adults can help our students to learn how to say ‘no’ or how to get out of situations where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
- Open and honest communication with a trusted adult is critical in safeguarding our children.
- Research tells us that when teens are feeling down or worried they will first choose to talk to a peer before speaking with their parents. Supporting children to recognise peer pressure is very important. Please get to know your children’s friends, monitor their social media posts and reassure them that you will always come and get them, no questions asked, if they feel worried or uncomfortable.
- We need to teach our children how to be assertive and how to resist getting involved in dangerous or inappropriate situations, encouraging and supporting them to ‘put the brakes on’ for long enough to think twice, take control of their choices and develop their own individuality.
In a community school such as Moriah, the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is an important reminder. I would like to appeal to all of our parents to be supportive and look out for our children and young adults as they navigate the difficulties of adolescence.
How to help young people resist peer pressure
Value common interests
Encourage your child to hang out with people who share similar interests. Reassure them that being part of the cool crowd may not be as much fun as it looks.
Having the strength to say no may be hard; however, it also feels good to stick with what you believe in.
Try not to judge others
Teach your child not to place judgements on other people’s choices. Respecting someone else’s choice will help them to respect yours. Try to remember that you don’t have to agree with their actions.
Standing up for someone else may help you feel stronger about your own decision.
Change your peer group
If your peer group is pressuring you and you want to avoid that pressure, then it might be better to change your peer group. Get involved in a new activity and meet new people.
Suggest other activities to your group
It may be useful to get creative and think of activities that you all can enjoy that don’t involve risk-taking behaviours.
Use the Traffic Light system
When faced with a risky choice, adopt the traffic light approach:
Amber: Slow down and think – Ask yourself, “Is this behaviour risky? Would my parents approve?”
Green: Now CHOOSE appropriately and act
About the author
Jan Hart is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW