By Diana Simeon
Last fall, as 13-year-old Taylor was taking a test, the boy sitting next to her asked—in a whisper—to see her answers. Taylor was confused. She knew cheating was wrong and could land her in a lot of trouble. Still, this was one of the most popular boys in her school. So, she showed him her answers, unaware that the teacher was watching. Both students received a zero.
“She certainly knew better,” recalls her mom in exasperation. “But I guess she just couldn’t resist that boy.”
Peers. Like it or not, starting in adolescence, peers will play a major role in our children’s lives. While their influence is typically tame—and often beneficial—they can also lead our teenagers to make dumb, if not disastrous, decisions. So, what’s a parent to do?
Well, it starts with recognizing that no teenager is 100 percent impervious to peer pressure. And, nor should they be because peers play an important role in developing adolescents into adults. So, don’t build a barricade; rather, arm your teenager with the skills necessary to resist peers when it matters most.
Why It Happens
Let’s start with understanding the important role peers play in our teenagers’ development.
“As children grow up, they start to separate from their parents as the main source of their identity and instead look to their peers for a secondary source of identity,” explains Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of You and Your Adolescent.
In other words, up until adolescence, our children want to be a lot like us. They are happy to do what we do, happy to be around us. You remember those days. But around adolescence, our children start to break away—or individuate—from us to form their own identity. They must separate from us to grow into adulthood successfully. Note: This doesn’t mean that our influence isn’t still tremendously important. It is, but in a different way than when our children were younger.
Our children use peers in an evolving way on this journey.
“In early adolescence, everyone is kind of looking at everyone else and figuring out, ‘Am I normal?’” explains Dr. Ellen Rome, Head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
Chances are, you’ve seen this up close. Perhaps your middle schooler, once happy to wear most anything you brought home from the mall, now insists on wearing only certain brands. You can bet he’s taking his cues from his peers.
“Then by 14 or 15, the question becomes, ‘Am I liked?’ and by 17 or 18, the question evolves again to, ‘Am I loved?’” Rome adds. “So when you’re 11, on a Friday night, you are doing what your family wants to do. At 15, you are doing what your friends want to do. And by the time you’re 18, you are doing what your significant other wants to do.”
In other words, expect your adolescent children to make a lot of choices based on what peers want—or what they think their peers want—rather than what you want (or what they think you want).
Social order is another component here. In middle school, in particular, the adolescents at the popular table tend to set the agenda for what’s “normal.” You can expect that your adolescent will want to model himself, to some extent, on that group during those years—and, like Taylor, occasionally mess up when confronted with an inappropriate request from a high-status peer. But in high school, the need to fit in with the popular crowd (as a goal in and of itself) will wane, as your teenager settles into a more comfortable peer group. This group will become the primary influence on your teenager for the next few years.
While all of our teenagers will make some mistakes, thanks to peers, some will unfortunately make more—and more alarming—mistakes than others. That’s where Tacreacia Blunt finds herself with her 17-year-old daughter.
“She started acting out at the age of 15,” says the Florida-based mom. “She took up friendship with a girl in the area who is into drugs and other things. My daughter thinks that this is her best friend, and everything this other girl does, my daughter thinks is the right thing to do in life.”
There’s no easy answer for why some teenagers, like Blunt’s daughter, can get so caught up with a peer. But there are some risk factors to look out for.
For starters, parents should “be more concerned with the kid who wants to be popular, but isn’t,” notes Temple University’s Steinberg. Indeed, research shows these teenagers may be more inclined to engage in risky behaviors when pushed by peers. For example, a 2012 study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that when socially anxious teenagers were placed in an online chat room with three peers they believed to be popular, they would agree to whatever the peers did, including accepting an alcoholic beverage at a party. Teenagers who were less concerned with popularity were more resistant when placed in the same situation.
Meanwhile, those in the popular crowd can also feel peer pressure. For example, a January 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health—of more than 1,800 California middle schoolers—found that the more popular a student was (as rated by their peers), the more likely he was to have used alcohol in the previous months.
Think of it this way. For teenagers, maintaining a popular status can mean going along with whatever the in-crowd is up to.
How to Help
You should anticipate your teenager taking some wrong turns, thanks to peer influence. But, you can take steps to build resilience in your teenagers to resist even the most persuasive peer pressure, especially when it matters the most:
1. Pay attention. Peer pressure cuts both ways. Some peers exert a negative influence—experimenting with drugs and alcohol or just getting into trouble—but others can have a tremendously positive influence, like pushing your teenager to get better grades or try an activity that she balked at when you suggested it. So, start paying attention to whom your teenager hangs out with, Steinberg says. “The earlier you start, the better. Your teenager doesn’t need to be popular, even one really good friend will do.” Adds Cleveland Clinic’s Rome: “Also pay attention to what they are doing. If you don’t want your teenager to drink, don’t send them to a house where no parent is watching.”
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If buying a few t-shirts or hoodies with the “right” brand will give your adolescent a sense of belonging, consider it. As grown-ups, we may find this silly, but for an adolescent, small things like this can instill confidence with peers. Don’t give into every demand; just choose your concessions wisely. “Pick your battles,” Rome recommends. “Does it really matter what they are wearing?
3. Expectations matter. Children who are raised with a warm but structured parenting style will have an easier time resisting negative peer pressure than those raised with few boundaries, Steinberg explains. Your rules and expectations help teenagers decide what’s right and wrong. If you’ve set a rule and consequences about underage drinking, your teen is less likely to do it, even when pushed by a peer. “It enables your teenager to speak her mind and do what’s right,” Steinberg says. That’s just what happened when Thomas, a 16-year-old, arrived at a party last spring. “When he walked in, everyone was drinking,” his mom says. “Luckily, he saw a girlfriend, and they decided to leave the party. Maybe all those conversations we’ve had about waiting until you are older to drink have paid off.”
4. Practice, practice, practice. The comedian Sarah Silverman, when talking about the “Just Say No” campaign, once quipped: “I think it should be something much cooler. Like, ‘Just say…I’m good for now,” recalls Wendy Mogel, psychologist and author of The Blessing of a B Minus. “I was so impressed because it’s a deft way to resist a peer. So, think about teaching your child how to be deft in those situations.” Practice with some good old-fashioned role-playing. “You can help them anticipate situations that may arise,” Steinberg says. “Take smoking. Your teenager could say, ‘I’ve got a big game coming up’ or ‘I get colds really easily and smoking makes it worse.’ But, the key is to rehearse beforehand.” And, consider letting your teenager use you as an excuse. For example: “My parents will ground me if they smell smoke on me.” Finally, consider setting up an easy way for your teenager to extricate herself from a tricky situation, like texting a code word that means, “Pick me up now!”
5. Keep them busy. While many teenagers are too busy these days, a little bit of busy is a good thing. “Don’t give them time to get into trouble,” Rome stresses. One or two extracurricular activities can go a long way to connecting your teenager with positive peers and limiting the amount of time she spends on her own—or unsupervised—with peers, particularly after school when parents may be at work. Many schools offer after-school study halls, which is another way to keep your teenager occupied. “The research tells us that the influence of the peer group is most likely to be at its worst during unsupervised and unstructured activities,” Steinberg says.
The good news is that with time, typically around 10th grade, peer influence begins to diminish. Still, the years until then can be difficult, and few, if any teenagers, emerge from adolescence without at least a few trip ups, thanks to peers. It’s important to know when to act.
“If your teenager is making poor choices, look at the whole picture,” Mogel recommends. “In how many areas of his life is he functioning in a strong and appropriate way? If this is an outlier, you may wait before you jump in. But if it’s a pattern, you need to step in.”
Steinberg recommends using a conversation as the first step. “You start by talking about choices, and if that doesn’t work, you talk about the friends, and if that doesn’t work, you implement some rules.”
Set the who, what, when and where for your teenager. “Tie privileges to accountability,” Mogel advises. “You may have to give them less freedom.”
Diana Simeon is managing editor of Your Teen.