Navigating peer pressure may feel like a whirlwind of emotions for young children and teens longing for acceptance by their peers during critical developmental years. Kids experience a desire to fit in, be included, and go with the flow out of fear of being rejected by their social group. Young clients have mentioned, “I don’t want to upset them,” “I just want to make them happy,” “What if they stop being my friend?” and “It’s just easier if I do what they do.” In further discussion, we reflect on what that truly means. Are you compromising your value system by going with the crowd, even when it goes against your intrinsic beliefs? There are different types of peer pressure; direct, indirect, positive, and negative peer pressure. Direct peer pressure can feel the most intense when accompanied by a demand expressed with words. Indirect demands are subtle and may include non-verbal cues and gestures. Negative peer pressure places demand on the person, which may lead to poor decision-making, strained relationships, withdrawal from social interactions, and a negative impact on self-esteem. Children tend to look externally for affirmations and approval from friends, which may boost their confidence. But when it contradicts their morals, we have an internal conflict resulting in confusion and turmoil.
Direct peer pressure may look like, “Chug this beer to prove you know how to have fun.” This statement is a verbal demand to pressure one into drinking quickly to prove their worth. It’s evident how this type of peer pressure can damage a young person’s physical and mental wellness. Someone may ask a question, persuade, offer a suggestion, etc., and expect you to fulfill their demand, which leads you to conform to their belief. Direct peer pressure may also look like a friend signaling you to show them your multiple-choice answers on a final exam with an expectation of you to help them cheat. This demand is still a direct form of pressure communicated with non-verbal gestures that place you under significant stress to fulfill their need at your expense. Indirect peer pressure can be more challenging to identify. It results in young children succumbing to indirect peer pressure more often. Indirect peer pressure can look like your group of friends skipping school to go to the movies, so you begin skipping school and going to the movies for inclusion and acceptance from your friends. Indirect peer pressure can also appear when your friend regularly vapes around you, and one month later, you purchase a vape to fit in.
Peer pressure goes even further when children and teens are praised for their behaviors, even when it goes against their moral code. When met with a smile, laughter, affirmations, or praise, the behavior becomes reinforced since they are received social acceptance. Reinforcement results in repeated behavior even if the behavior is unhealthy, socially unacceptable, dangerous, etc. Guilt, confusion, doubt, embarrassment, and shame are common emotions that appear after young people fall into peer pressure. “Why did I do that? That wasn’t even me, I feel like crap after doing that.” At the moment, the pressure may feel overwhelming, and people won’t say no out of fear of their peers abandoning them or from fear of judgment. These emotions are very intense, especially when the action has gone against a core belief as it relates to one’s identity, religion, race/culture, sexuality, etc. Peer pressure may result in children and teens experiencing isolation, anxiety, depression, decreased self-esteem, self-harm behaviors, and suicidal thoughts.
Children and teens may find it helpful to identify types of peer pressure and how to address it, whether it comes from friends, peers, strangers, or even family members. Learning to say no, without explanation is an important boundary to set. No is an entire sentence, and there doesn’t always need to be an elaborate response to follow the boundary of saying no. Boundaries include, “I’m not comfortable with this,” “Please don’t say that” “I’ve decided not to,” and “It is not okay with me.” When a boundary is over-stepped, one needs to identify ways to respond, whether restating your boundary in a firm tone, removing yourself from the interaction/situation, or seeking support from others whose beliefs align better with yours. Identify situations, events, environments, and people that make you uncomfortable. If you feel unsafe, your nervous system is triggered, and distancing yourself from that place or person is in your best interest. Check in with yourself and identify any discomfort or negative emotions when you feel something feels off. Ask yourself, what is happening around me that makes me feel uneasy, is drugs at the table next to me, is it my friend making discriminatory comments, or did my friend pass me a drink when they know I don’t drink? Identifying the source of your discomfort will allow you to be more in tune with your emotions and lead to a mindful decision-making process.
There is a mantra of “birds of a feather, flock together,” which means people usually associate themself with others who share similar beliefs, interests, and values. Suppose you are doubting your decisions, questioning your values, hesitating before making a decision, or feeling negative emotions. In that case, you may be experiencing peer pressure and surrounded by people who go against your beliefs. Finding a support network, community, and similar friends who encourage healthy decisions is in your best interest. In this case, you may find more examples of positive peer pressure, which looks like your friend saying, I can’t go to that expensive dinner because I’m saving money for Father’s Day. Your friend may lead you to reflect on your spending habits with Father’s Day approaching, so you also begin saving. Or even your friend starts going to the gym every weekend to manage their stress, and then you pick up a few yoga classes to find more balance in life. A support system with similar morals and beliefs can be the source of motivation, encouragement, self-esteem boosts, and overall a positive impact on your emotional and mental wellness. Suppose you’re struggling with interpersonal relationships, low self-esteem, finding it challenging to assert boundaries, or experiencing emotional distress. In that case, it may be time to seek the help of one of our therapists to guide you on your wellness journey.