Positive Spin on Peer Pressure

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Come on! You know you want to come”, said a boy to his friend. “I don’t know. I haven’t really done something like this before,” said his friend. “You might as well try it as we are already here,” replied the boy.

When thinking about peer pressure, the above conversation would seem to be a prime example of how kids and teens can make bad choices and be led astray by their friends. However, peer pressure does not always have a negative influence. The conversation could just as easily be about the boy encouraging his friend to try out for a play as opposed to trying drugs or engaging in some other illicit activity.

Children begin to be influenced by their peers as early as first grade.  At that age, children begin to pay attention to what other children think of them. As children get older and move into late elementary school and middle school, peer influence increases. Children become concerned about fitting in and being accepted. This results in children adopting their peer group’s preferred hairstyle, way of talking, and style of dress. Fitting in and feeling like they belong can result in higher self-esteem for kids.

How peer pressure impacts children depends on who the children model their behavior after and who they look up to in their peer group. Peers and groups that have good behaviors such as participating in sports or clubs, volunteering in the community, and achieving good grades are going to exert positive peer pressure.  These types of peers and groups can also encourage children to be honest, respectful, and responsible.

While parents want their children to look up to and model these positive peers and groups, there is a major caveat. Children pick to be around peers who are most like them and share similar interests. This means that parents can put their child around peers who like to play sports but if the child is not athletic and prefers to play computer games, then he will leave that group and search for peers who also like to play computer games.

Even though parents cannot force their child to be friends with positive peers, there are steps that can be taken to prepare the child for peer pressure. The first step is to have children recognize that there are attempts to influence them everywhere. A good place to start is to talk about the ads that children see on television. Ask questions about what the ad wants them to do and how the ad is trying to convince them to do it. Our society is full of people trying to influence one another and peers are just one among many that are vying for children’s attention and trying to shape their behavior.

Once children are aware of how peers can influence them, then parents need to start talking about whether it is the kind of influence they want to be shaped by. This type of discussion can prepare children and make it easier for them to resist negative peer influences. Another buffer against negative peer pressure is for children to have a good relationship with their parents. Children who do often feel they have less need to please their friends and give into peer pressure.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on March 23, 2014.

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