Peer pressure

Your peers are the people with whom you identify and spend time. In childrenand teens, they are usually, but not always, of the same age group. In adults, peers may be determined less by age and more by shared interests or professions. Peer pressure occurs when an individual experiences implied or expressed persuasion to adopt similar values, beliefs, and goals, or to participate in the same activities as those in the peer group.

What Is Peer Pressure?

Peer pressure exists for all ages. Three-year-old Robert insists that his mother take him to the store right away and buy him the latest fad toy because his friends have it. When she doesn't, he has a temper tantrum. Nine-year-oldSarah wears a new shirt to school once, then refuses to wear it again becauseher friends made fun if it. Jeff, at sixteen, works out three hours a day tohave a "perfect" body. When one of his friends at the gym offers him some anabolic steroids, he accepts, sacrificing his health for his image. Meanwhile,Jeff's forty-year-old father just took out a loan he couldn't afford to buya new BMW because most of his neighbors drive luxury cars, and he didn't wantthem to think he couldn't afford one too. No one is immune from peer pressure.

The level of peer influence generally increases as children grow, and resistance to peer influence often declines as children gain independence from the family or caregivers, and before they fully form an adult identity. Pre-schoolchildren tend to be the least aware of peer pressure, and are the least influenced by the need to conform. However with more social interactions outsidethe home and more awareness of others, the influence of peers increases.

Pre-teens and teenagers face many issues related to conformity and peer pressure. They are pulled between the desire to be seen as individuals of unique value and the desire to belong to a group where they feel secure and accepted.The result is that often teens reject family or general society values, while feeling pressure to conform rigidly to the values of their peer group. An example of this phenomenon is seen when young people join gangs. In joining the gang they are rejecting the community's way of dressing and behaving. Yet to belong to the gang, they must conform to the gang's own style of dress, behavior, and speech.

How Does Peer Pressure Affect Behavior?

Peer pressure by itself is neither positive nor negative. For example, both high and low academic achievement is closely linked to peer influences. Several studies confirm research findings that the values of the peer group with whom the high school student spends the most time are a stronger factor in thestudent's level of academic success than the values, attitudes, and support provided by the family. Compared to others who started high school with the same grades, students whose families were not especially supportive, but who spent time with an academically oriented peer group, got better grades. Those students whose families stressed academics, but who spent time with peers whose orientation was not toward academic excellence, performed less well.

These peer pressure studies contradict prevailing ideas about the influence of families on the academic success of racial and cultural minorities such asAsians and African Americans. While some Asian families were not especially involved in their children's education, the students were high academic achievers because they tended to band together in academic study groups that provided both an academic and a social focus.

On the other hand, African American students whose families tended to be highly involved in and supportive of education were subjected to intense peer pressure not to perform well academically. According to one study, strong African American peer groups associated the activities of studying and spending time at the library with "white" behavior. They promoted the idea that studentswho got good grades, participated in school activities, or spoke standard English were betraying their racial heritage and community. Consequently, giftedAfrican American students felt external pressure to "dumb-down" in order tofit in or to find a different group of peers who valued academic achievement.Research suggests that this type of peer pressure contributes to a decline in the grades of African American students (especially males) as early as thefirst through fourth grades.

In study after study, peer pressure is associated in adolescents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds with at-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking, truancy, drug use, sexual activity, fighting, shoplifting, and daredevil stunts. Again, peer group values and attitudes influence more strongly than do family values the level of teenage alcohol use. The more accepting peers are of risky behavior, and the more they participate in that behavior, the more likely a person is to do the same thing.

Regardless of the parenting style, peer pressure also influences the degree to which children conform to expected gender roles. For example, up until about grade six, girls performance as well in science and math as boys, but during adolescence girls' test scores and level of expressed interest in these subjects declines. The tendency is to abandon competition with boys in favor ofplacing more emphasis on relationships and on physical appearance.

Physical appearance is extremely important to teenagers. Young people are alltoo well aware that the group may reject them simply because they look different or dress differently. Jeff, who wanted to have the "perfect" male body is no more immune to peer pressure than a girl who develops anorexia or another eating disorder in an effort to have the "perfect" female body.

Peer pressure can be either expressed or implied. In expressed peer pressure,a boy may be challenged by the group to "prove your manhood" by having sex or performing a risky stunt such as roof riding. Girls may be told that if they want to be part of a group they must do something illegal such as shoplift.Studies show that both girls and boy are inclined to take risks they do notwant to take because they believe the risky behavior will increase their standing in the eyes of their peers and assure their acceptance in the group.

Implied peer pressure is more subtle and can be harder to combat. For example, a group of girls may make fun of the way another girl is dressed, pressuring members of their group to dress only in one acceptable style. Often young people who look, dress, or act differently, or who have significant intereststhat differ from those of their age group become outcasts because of the pressure groups place on their members not to associate with anyone unlike themselves. This can lead the rejected person to feel desperate and depressed.

Why Is Peer Pressure So Powerful?

Peer groups have so much influence, especially with adolescents, because, nomatter how inappropriate it seems to adults, belonging to a group really doesgive something significant to the young person. Peer groups provide a placewhere children feels accepted, where they can feel good about themselves, andwhere their self-esteem is enhanced. Some psychologists also point out thatlife become simpler when we conform to expectations. Young people tend to gravitate toward other young people with the same problems and in the same situations as themselves and where they feel they will be understood and accepted.There is a very, very strong need to satisfy that thirst for unity and for acceptance. The feeling of belonging is a very powerful force that can outweigh ties to church, school, family, or community.

In addition to the feeling of belonging and not being alone or socially isolated, some characteristics that peer groups offer which make them attractive and that families may lack are: (1) a strong belief structure; (2) a clear system of rules; and (3) communication and discussion about taboo subjects suchas drugs, sex, and religion.

Coping with Peer Pressure?

To maintain emotional health, people need to achieve a balance that lets themmake decisions based on a combination of values internalized from the family, values derived from thinking independently, and values derived from friendsand other role models. Providing clear but fair and flexible value systems,modeling positive patterns of behavior, and encouraging formation of peer groups that engage in positive academic, athletic, artistic, and social activities are ways that families and schools can make peer pressure a positive force.

Helping children cope with peer pressure begins in preschool. Parents who convey a strong, clear (not necessarily rigid) value structure and open avenuesof communication about many topics early in life as children are first beingexposed to the group pressures in preschool set a pattern for future positiveinfluences. Parents who are hesitant to discourage their children's independence and individuality often send vague messages or no message at all to thechild about their perspective on issues, leaving the child to make decisionsbased on the opinions of his peers. Voicing parental opinion provides guidance, which children can choose to accept or reject in future situations. In turn, the knowledge that the child is open to being guided on important mattersgives parents a sense of confidence when the child succumbs to the numerous small, inconsequential peer pressures concerning interests, toys, or styles ofdress throughout grade school.

Many programs exist to help students resist peer pressure. One of the best known is the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program used in elementaryschools to teach children to resist the pressures to use drugs and alcohol. This, and similar programs, offer strategies for coping with unwanted pressureto become involved in activities that are risky, illegal, or self-destructive.

Some of the techniques of resisting peer pressure include:

  • Observe people and the groups with whom they socialize. Observe what they do and the consequences of their actions. When someone tries to argue "everyone's doing it," you can prove otherwise. Make positive choices about who you spend time with, instead of joining a group just because it is there.
  • Avoid situations that present problems - parties where no adults will be present, being alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend who might pressure you to become sexuallyinvolved, situations where you will have to "prove yourself" to be accepted as part of the group.
  • Evaluate the risk. Are you being ask to do something that is trivial, like wearing a piece of clothing you wouldn't normallychoose, or are you being asked to do something that might have permanent health or legal consequences like using drugs or drinking and driving?
  • Communicate: Say "No" forcefully and with eye contact. If you do not believe yourself, no one else will either. You do not need to apologize for your individuality. Find an ally, someone who feels the same way you do, who will support your decision to say no.
  • Anticipate what your friends will say or do and decide beforehand how you will react. If you know that when you go to the mall your friends will shoplift, decide how you will handle the situationbefore you go or make an excuse to stay home.
  • If you are in a situation where there is conflict, walk away. No one can make you do something you do not want to. If you find yourself anticipating conflict too often, seriously think about finding a new friend or set of friends. Start off gradually, spending less and less time with the people who are pressuring you.
  • Know yourself. Know what moods might make you more susceptible to negative peerinfluence. Know what activities make you feel good about yourself. Know why you are doing whatever you do everyday. Be aware of your actions.Make active choices rather than floating along with the crowd.
  • Get involved in positive activities such as sports, volunteering, peer tutoring, or youth clubs.Look for people who share your interests outside of your immediate school friends. Having several different groups of people who accept you gives you choices and social outlets rather than making you dependent on one group of friends.

Two primary areas where schools can discourage negative peer pressure and encourage formation of positive peer groups are in peer leader programs and in collaborative learning practices. Most schools train student peer leaders to participate in counseling, support groups, drug or violence prevention programs, or peer mentoring and tutoring programs. For these programs, students aretrained in understanding and empathizing with others, goal setting, problem identification, decision-making, and communication skills in order to lead, coach, and support other students. Peer leader programs implicitly combat peerpressure as students act as positive role models for other teens.

Peer pressure peaks during adolescence, but it never entirely disappears. Even adults feel pressure to conform in order to belong to a group whether it isin the workplace, neighborhood, or in the extended family. Finding a rational balance between accepting group beliefs and thinking for oneself is a challenge for everyone. Many people who feel as if this area of their lives is outof balance benefit from seeking professional counseling to help them find alevel of belonging and acceptance that is more comfortable for them.

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